Mark Twain’s A Double-Barreled Detective Story is a novella-length parody of whodunits. Much of the action takes place out West, in a mining camp where at one point a young man is visited by his uncle, who turns out to be none other than Sherlock Holmes. By the time Holmes appears, the implausible coincidences in the plot have begun tumbling over each other with such rapidity that the appearance of the English sleuth seems merely routine. At any rate, it quickly becomes apparent that Twain has introduced Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation for the sole purpose of mocking the stories that recount Holmes’s exploits. And no one is more skeptical of Holmes than his nephew, who thinks to himself, “Anybody that knows him the way I do knows he can’t detect a crime except where he plans it all out beforehand and arranges the clues and hires some fellow to commit it according to instructions.”
While reading Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol, I had more than one occasion to reflect upon just how much Brown resembles Twain’s Holmes. The one word that sums up this book is the same word that describes The Da Vinci Code: contrived. To get through either story, you have to swallow a lot of coincidences. You have to believe that a man will board a private jet and fly from Boston to Washington, D.C., on a moment’s notice without once speaking to the man who asks him to make the flight. You have to buy into the idea that fathers do not recognize sons. You have to accept that people do not talk as they do in life but instead converse in whole paragraphs in which they exchange large clumps of abstruse information. And you must believe that the hero has an eidetic memory until, at a convenient point in the plot, he does not. That said, The Lost Symbol is a lot of fun. I got paid to stay up all night reading it, but the truth is, I might have done that anyway. Brown may not be much as a conventional novelist, but he knows how to make you keep turning pages.
Brown doesn’t care about the things that occupy most novelists─realistic dialogue, characterization─and apparently neither do his legions of readers. But complaining that he doesn’t do well with the usual conventions of fiction is like complaining that Manny Ramirez is not a great left-fielder. It ignores what he is good at. Brown is a maze maker who builds a puzzle and then walks you through it. His genius lies in uncovering odd facts and suppressed history, stirring them together into a complicated stew and then saying, what if? What if Jesus married Mary Magdalene and then the Christian church covered it up? What if all the Masonic symbols that adorn our nation’s capital (not to mention our money) all point to the existence of Ancient Mysteries that might be unlocked with the right keys? The underlying assumption behind most of his fiction is summed up late in The Lost Symbol: “There is a hidden world behind the one we all see. For all of us.” The world he lives in is one of conspiracy and paranoia. Call it the Grassy-Knoll School of Fiction. Judging by his enormous success, it is a world with an exploding population.
Will The Lost Symbol succeed as well as The Da Vinci Code? Put it this way: are Masonic rituals and arcana as sexy as Jesus and Mary Magdalene? Perhaps, especially given that Brown hasn’t really altered the formula that succeeded so well for him the last time. Once again he’s employed his usual hero, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, and again Langdon must contend with a villain who makes Ming the Merciless look like a kindergarten teacher. This bad guy’s tattooed all over and never kills when he can torture and never tortures unless he can think up some really creepy way to do it, such as locking his victim in a box and then slowly filling it with water. And again we are inundated with trivia that upends our usual assumptions about the world we think we know. Brown’s not much good at graceful exposition─I kept thinking of Mr. Peabody explaining world history to Sherman in the old Bullwinkle cartoons─but he’s a master at teasing his readers with fascinating trivia ("hoodwink" comes from the blindfold worn by Masonic initiates; "giving someone the third degree" comes from the ritual third degree Masons must endure; the literal meaning of apotheosis is “man becoming god” and puts a real spin on The Apotheosis of George Washington, the title of the mural adorning the Capitol Dome, which shows Washington ascending to heaven on a cloud). Reading The Lost Symbol may be more like working a great crossword puzzle than reading War and Peace, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a fascinating pleasure. Don’t stay up too late.