Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

It took nearly a week, but I finally finished Dan Brown's "The Lost Symbol." I would have read faster -- it's hard not to, considering Brown's breakneck pacing and three-page chapters -- but beautiful weather kept me outside over the weekend.

I'll say upfront that I enjoy the codes and puzzles that move the plot in Brown's books, even if they are fairly simple. I'm also a fan of historical novels, or those that draw heavily on historical information. And there is plenty of both -- puzzles and history -- in "The Lost Symbol." Professor Robert Langdon moves through some of Washington, D.C.'s most prominent buildings, including the Capitol and the U.S. Botanic Garden, as he pursues an ancient mystery -- and is pursued by a tattooed madman. At every step, he encounters encoded clues related to Freemasonry, a social order that has included many prominent Washingtonians, including Washington himself.
Brown is at his best when he simply focuses on plot: the madman's quest and the physical dangers faced by Langdon and mentor Peter Solomon, who heads the Smithsonian Institution. Or when Langdon confronts another ingenious puzzle. As in "The Da Vinci Code," the puzzles refer to distant religions, artists and scientists. Brown gives the book some depth by developing Solomon's family backstory -- we learn much more about Solomon's feelings than Langdon's, in fact. But that backstory and some drawn-out historical anecdotes periodically slowed the pace.

What the story really lacks is a powerful, over-arching conspiracy. The Masons seem a likely target, but Brown quickly explains away claims that they hold secret power over the government. The CIA, which interferes with Langdon's mission, is another convenient target for conspiracy theorists, but I was let down by the resolution of that conflict. All in all, it seems to be a kinder, gentler Dan Brown, aiming for a more inspirational message.

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