Given the volcanic sales of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it’s understandable that he’s chosen to retread many of that book’s conventions and plot devices for The Lost Symbol. Once again Brown’s protagonist, the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, must unlock a series of fiendishly cryptic puzzles to keep world chaos at bay, all the while confronting, within the span of a single day, a self-mutilating but endlessly resourceful villain, a powerful secret society (the Freemasons) and a well-meaning but obstructionist law-enforcement agency (the CIA). And again Langdon is accompanied in his frantic flights from danger by a woman who’s both attractive and academically worthy of him. The action takes place in and around some of Washington, D.C.’s grandest architectural treasures, among them the Capitol, the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.
When he’s not assuming other identities, the villain Langdon faces calls himself Mal’akh. He is truly a terrifying foe, rich, muscular, merciless and tattooed from head to toe. Having insinuated himself into the highest rank of Masons, his mission is to discover and expose the organization’s deepest and most socially disruptive secrets. To prevent this, Langdon has to rescue a friend who Mal’akh has kidnapped and is torturing for information. Alas, the CIA is also onto Mal’akh and is determined to keep Langdon from messing things up. All the action proceeds from these entanglements. At times, the book reads like an episode of the TV series "24."
Building psychologically complex characters is not Brown’s strong suit, nor need it be since he’s essentially writing genre fiction. But he does create a memorable one in the diminutive person of Inoue Sato, head of the CIA’s Office of Security. A survivor of the Nisei internment camps of World War II, she is pure chain-smoking, command-snapping venom. She steals every scene she’s in. Langdon also takes a Tom Clancy turn here, equipping the CIA commandos with all manner of high-tech weapons which should make Langdon’s escapes impossible but don’t. When Langdon isn’t running for his life, he’s tossing off tutorials on myth, history and religion. Seldom has unrelieved mayhem been so instructive.
There’s not much tension-relieving humor in The Lost Symbol, but there is one spot in which Brown seems to be poking fun at himself and his delay in finishing the manuscript for this book. Langdon calls his editor to get a phone number and nimbly parries the editor’s questions about when he’s going to meet his deadline. After Langdon hangs up, the editor “stared at the receiver and shook his head. Book publishing would be so much easier without the authors.”
Well, it was worth the wait.