- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009



By Dan Brown

Doubleday, $29.95, 509 pages

Reviewed by Paul Dickson

Dan Brown, the man responsible for the worldwide sensation, “The Da Vinci Code,” is back with his new novel, “The Lost Symbol,” set in Washington, and the local practitioners of Freemasonry are at its heart.

As in “The Da Vinci Code,” Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is summoned to the scene of a gruesome attack, joins forces with an attractive and erudite young woman and careens around a capital city chasing clues, solving puzzles (including bone-simple anagrams) and risking his life, all the while lecturing the reader. The Brown template is firmly in place with a homicidal villain, high-speed chases and serial climaxes. The albino self-mutilator of the previous book has morphed into a gigantic, blood-draining, totally tattooed, self-made eunuch psychiatrist.

The entire 509-page story takes place in Washington on a winter Sunday during a mere 12 hours, and it seems like every second is covered. This reviewer was tempted time and again to jump ahead from the bloviating to the actual narrative that he will not spoil by retelling. My take on the story line is that it’s OK, although probably better suited to a movie than a book. The movie will presumably save us from a lot of the mystical mumbo jumbo that afflicts the book and concentrate on things like the giant squid and a spectacular explosion of the Smithsonian Institution facility at Silver Hill.

Langdon is again an asexual cipher whose only idiosyncrasy is his Mickey Mouse wristwatch. Mr. Brown tells us little about his hero, but when he does attempt to flesh him out, it has a strange sense of unrealistic melodramatic padding. For example, when the villain traps the hero in a coffin that is filling with water, we are told that Langdon has a “phobia” about being tightly enclosed because, as a child, he fell down a well and had to tread water all night just to stay alive - which is why he is so scared at this moment. You don’t have to be phobic to be scared when you’re about to be drowned in a coffin. When I studied psychology, a phobia was an irrational fear, and this is perfectly rational.

The book is fun on several levels beyond the plot - not all of which were intended by Mr. Brown and his publisher. For openers, it is fun to play gotcha with his geographical gaffs. If Mr. Brown hired a guide to familiarize him with the area in which the story takes place, he should demand his money back. He tells us that the tip of the Washington Monument is the highest point in the city, when in fact that honor goes to the National Cathedral. Speaking of the cathedral, Langdon drives north to get from it to Kalorama, which is actually two miles southeast of the cathedral. And the eunuch psychopath crosses the Anacostia River into Maryland on Independence Avenue, which ends on the D.C. side of the river. In another example, there is a 200-acre estate in Potomac, Md., that has a river running through it that is not the Potomac but the estate’s “own” river that freezes over in the winter.

Then there is the thuggish CIA unit deeply involved in the story line that darts around the city landing a black helicopter in the most unlikely places. The low point occurs when the unit flies a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter from the front yard of a mansion in Kalorama to DuPont Circle, where it lands. Despite the fact that the helicopter cruising at its normal speed of 130 mph would only take a few seconds to cover those 20 or so city blocks, it is the occasion for a long dialogue. The helicopter, which is 64 feet 10 inches from stem to stern, lands all over the city including at the Botanical Gardens, the National Cathedral and on the roof of a building in Franklin Square.

The agents of the unit are black-clad and have universal entry to any building in the city. The threat posed to the country is minor - a mildly disturbing video - and does nothing to raise the terror level, let alone anxiety level. In the real Washington, all of this would be the jurisdiction of the FBI. One of the CIA black-clad covert “field agents” is found dead and is linked to the CIA because of the CIA logo emblazoned on his cell phone. Furthermore, Mr. Brown’s CIA is depicted as a doltish group of bunglers who use high explosives to blow open doors at the Library of Congress while chasing the architect of the Capitol and Langdon.

This is not a book about Washington. There are no cops, no reporters, no politicians, no innocent bystanders, no cabbies. And why are there no security guards or people in the streets or taxis or cars on the roads?

This is explained in one most improbable lines in a book loaded with improbabilities:

“NFC playoffs,” Alfonso Nunez, a security guard, replies. “Everyone’s watching the Redskins tonight.”

This game is alluded to several times to explain why the city is depopulated and why a rogue CIA unit can plop down at will. As for the football game, nobody asks the score, and we have no idea whom the Redskins are playing. Maybe this was Mr. Brown’s sop to Washington reviewers who he thought might go easy on this flawed and ponderous volume if he gave us the playoff. Like so many aspects of this book, it just doesn’t work.

Paul Dickson is the co-author with Douglas Evelyn of “On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C.,” a historic guidebook that discusses the key sites in the “The Lost Symbol.”

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