Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has spawned a raft of imitators, most of which pale in comparison; the latest, The Lost Symbol, is by Brown himself. Once again, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned to the scene of a gruesome attack, joins forces with an attractive and erudite love interest, and speeds around a world capital chasing clues, solving puzzles, and risking his life while dropping cocktail parties’ worth of scholarly minutiae. Even the setting, though new, will be familiar to most readers: Washington, D.C.
This time, Langdon is lured to the Capitol to save his mentor, Peter Solomon, a prominent member of the Freemasons who’s been kidnapped by a cryptic, heavily tattooed, Homer-reading psycho calling himself Mal’akh — a vicious fellow even less plausible than the albino monk in The Da Vinci Code. Our hero is also in possession of an ancient Masonic artifact whose clues lead him on a treasure hunt to various D.C. tourist spots as he searches for a secret long hidden by the brotherhood.
That secret, of course, is one giant MacGuffin — though Brown is the rare thriller writer who seems to lavish as much attention on the object that sets his plot in motion as he does on the action itself. But for thriller fans, it’s the chase that really matters. Especially since the secrets of Freemasonry just aren’t as compelling as, say, a controversial theory about Mary Magdalene and Jesus.
Luckily, Langdon remains a terrific hero, a bookish intellectual who’s cool in a crisis and quick on his feet, like Ken Jennings with a shot of adrenaline. The codes are intriguing, the settings present often-seen locales in a fresh light, and Brown mostly manages to keep the pages turning — except when one of his know-it-all characters decides to brake the action for another superfluous, if occasionally interesting, historical digression. (Did you know there’s a carving of Darth Vader on the National Cathedral?) Even after the book’s climactic showdown, you must slog through another 50-plus pages of exposition that Brown couldn’t cram into the main narrative. Sometimes it seems that authors, like their villains, don’t know when to leave well enough alone. C+