by Amber Plante
When you have a tried-and-true format that sells, why in the name of Da Vinci’s Last Supper would you mess with it? This was the question plaguing me the entire 528 pages of Dan Brown’s newest attempt at a controversial mystery-adventure, The Lost Symbol.
Everyone’s favorite tweed-and-turtleneck-wearing Peter Langdon is back for his third – and hopefully final – book in Brown’s series. This time around, we trade in conspiracy theories surrounding the Catholic Church for the rituals of Freemasonry, and, unfortunately, we also trade suspense for annoyance.
Langdon, who at this point should be old-hat at solving centuries-old mysteries that have baffled scholars and fanatics for years in a matter of a few hours, still feigns ignorance at delving into another legend. Every possible clue is met with skepticism, and every eventual revelation is met with awed wonder and shock. Really? You’re in a cellar storage facility in the Capital Building, and you’re surprised to find a secret back room with an ancient pyramid? Really?
Or, perhaps it’s the reader’s inability to suspend our disbelief, especially given his background adventures, over Langdon’s lack of faith in anything fantastical– which, let’s be honest, is the most fantastical thing about The Lost Symbol.
Let’s examine Dan Brown’s previous formula, used in both Angels and Demons and the much-heralded Da Vinci Code:
1.) Old man dies at the beginning, and the experts call in the symbolgist.
2.) Beautiful female shows up, and together she and Langdon solve the first mystery.
3.) With seconds to spare, the pair dash around looking for and solving clues.
4.) Meet Trusted man, who explains the legend and tries to help.
5.) Final chase for the secret before bad guy shows up, threatening death.
6.) Trusted guy turns out to be ultimate bad guy.
7.) Sterile kiss scene before Langdon solves the final and greatest mystery.
Seven steps to a great mystery. However, in Symbol, Brown strays from this path in a way that at once is boring, ambivalent and, worst of all, forced. Yes, that is a slight on Brown’s ability to craft a good story, which, before Symbol, I never questioned.
Not that changing it up is bad – look at Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn which veered so far off the path it might as well have been on a different planet. The character-driven mechanics of the plot must be believable and stick within the realm of actual plausibility: Would the character really act that way? Is baffled, unrelenting skepticism really Langdon’s reaction to everything? Evolution is key, and other than a forced, brittle attempt to break the mold, Lost Symbol just can’t move past itself.
However, Brown’s strength has always been in the symbology discussions within the Langdon stories and the research that goes into each book. As readers, we delight in having the wool pulled from our eyes about the meanings of familiar phrases, messages in iconic works of art and fantastic places swathed in mystery yet hidden in plain sight. There were some gems hidden in the hay, but unfortunately, they were few and far between. The connections felt flimsy, and the reasoning behind the revelations felt flimsier despite the fascination. And, when I can guess who the killer really is within the first 50 pages, eek.
Next time, stick to the formula that made you a household name and give the readers what they’ve come to expect: suspense, intrigue and a shot of something fantastic. Otherwise, Langdon becomes just another textbook hero waiting to be forgotten.