Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol

It took Dan Brown six years to write a follow-up book to his blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code. When asked why The Lost Symbol took so long to write, he told The Wall Street Journal “the materials and the ideas are so complicated that it took me a lot of time to process.” Brown outdid himself with this amazing novel. “I’ve got four refrigerator-size boxes of pages,” Brown admitted, “that didn’t make it into ‘The Lost Symbol.’ I probably wrote ten novels’ worth of material for this book.” The six-year wait was worth it.

Time magazine named this former teacher and author of five novels one of the world’s 100 most influential people. Brown’s Da Vinci Code – the bestselling book of all time – remained on the New York Times bestseller list for 165 weeks and has sold over 81 million copies to date. The Lost Symbol has been translated into 50 languages and sold over a million copies the first day it was released. With a novel this popular, critics sometimes jump to conclusions, equating popularity with inferior writing. But seriously talented writers such as Dickens and Rowling have often attracted a huge following. (Dickens’s Pickwick Papers was so popular it spawned the creation of Pickwick hats and canes). Brown may not be a stylist, but he is a masterful storyteller. It is certainly no mean feat to create a novel that millions of readers can’t put down.

The Lost Symbol is Brown’s third novel featuring Robert Langdon, the Harvard professor and symbologist (Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code are the precursors). The novel begins with Peter Solomon summoning his friend Robert Langdon to Washington to give a lecture. When Langdon arrives, he discovers the request a hoax, his friend kidnapped, Solomon’s severed hand lying on the Capitol Building floor, and the FBI ready to apprehend him. Later Langdon finds out that the fate of the country hinges on the discovery of a Masonic pyramid harboring the Ancient Mysteries. He must unlock the mystery and crack the code before a madman does. The roller coaster ride begins.

The Lost Symbol is not only a mystery novel but also a thriller, a cryptography novel, a treasure-hunt story, and an adventure novel. This fast-paced, heart-pumping book includes secret societies, mysterious symbols, cryptograms, underground chases, hidden messages, and ciphers. The challenge for the reader is to crack the code before Langdon does.

In an article called “The Return of the Cracking Good Read,” Robert McCrum argues that “the key to Dan Brown . . . is simply this: story, story, story.” And who doesn’t love a great story, one that is so addictive that you can’t put it down? As Larry Orenstein points out in a Globe and Mail review, Dan Brown gives us “good old-fashioned cliffhanging storytelling at its best” (2009). Brown accomplishes this through a clever narrative structure, one best described in The Boston Globe as “a set of Russian nested dolls, with one revelation hiding another.” Each cracked code leads us to a subsequent one, extending and compounding the mystery.

Brown is a master at narrative composition, interrupting the story at key points and turning to a different subplot and set of characters. The narrative also has the appeal of a thriller, as a demonic psychopath carries out his deadly intentions. The resulting “rip-snorting adventure” as Janet Maslin points out in her New York Times review of the novel, generates “non-stop momentum.” The psychopath’s final revelation is truly astounding, exposing an ingeniously devised plot.

The Lost Symbol is a well-researched novel, including a host of what Maslin terms “weirdly illuminating minutia” from disciplines as different as art history, politics, history, theology, architecture, and history. Brown’s goal in writing is to stimulate the reader’s inquisitive spirit. “The best teachers make you curious,” he maintains. “If that’s all my books do, I’m thrilled.” Unfortunately The Lost Symbol does not seamlessly integrate the educative material with the puzzle plot; characters sometimes sound like what critics have variously termed “encyclopedias” and “docents.”

If you love cleverly devised, plot-driven novels that educate you while keeping you up all night, you will not be disappointed with The Lost Symbol.

Brown, Dan. The Lost Symbol. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

Orenstein, Larry. “Even More Satisfied Customers.” The Globe and Mail. September 19, 2009.