Dan Brown - The Lost Symbol

Kindle book review

 Dan Brown – The Lost Symbol cover

Dan Brown's three Robert Langdon novels - 'Angels and Demons', 'The Da Vinci Code' and 'The Lost Symbol' - have been an unwarranted success with over 80 million copies of the 'The Da Vinci Code' alone sold worldwide and counting. The movie versions of 'Angels and Demons' and 'The Da Vinci Code' have grossed together over $1.2 billion. On its first day of release in hardback and ebook, the much awaited 'The Lost Symbol' sold over 1 million copies.

So, there ought to be much to learn for aspiring thriller writers. What are the elements of this success?

As Dan Brown's wikipedia entry points out, he started out as a songwriter and musician with limited success. He then became a teacher of English at his alma mata Phillips Exeter. It was only in 1993 that he developed the idea of becoming a writer of thrillers when, while on holiday, he read Sidney Sheldon's 'The Doomsday Conspiracy'. It took five years to get his first novel published. His first three novels – 'Digital Fortress' (1998), 'Angels and Demons' (2000) and 'Deception Point' (2001) - had only moderate success, selling about 10,000 copies each. It may be significant that both 'Digital Fortress' and 'Deception Point' are both techno-thrillers, a genre that generally has been in recent relative decline since the high points of success of technothrillers such as Michael Crichton's 'Jurassic Park'

Of course, it was the success of 'The Da Vinci Code' (2003) that changed everything.

In the three Robert Langdon novels, Dan Brown goes beyond the fact-based thriller and into the realm of thriller as conspiracy theory. Facts have been concealed for an unseen purpose and this is affecting people's lives in ways that they cannot know. A premium is set on discovering the truth behind the conspiracy. And here Dan Brown draws on his childhood interest in codes and cryptography – an interest stimulated by his mathematician father. Breaking the codes, solving the cryptograms, helps to unmask the conspiracy. But why is this so powerful? Why are the novels not just a dull exercise in puzzle solving?

The plotting is good. The characters are clearly drawn and pit good against evil. The time frame is constrained to 24 hours, a key in Dan Brown's approach that amplifies tension and suspense. The format is that of the page turner that keeps you reading.

But perhaps at the core of this success is the line drawn between truth and reality. The reader is not just suspending disbelief but made to wonder – is this true? And if it is true, what kind of moral dilemmas does that imply? The readers become drawn in much more fully than in engaging with that they know is going to recede once they put the book down. To achieve this requires extensive research. The more apparently fact-based the conspiracy is, the more real it can be made to seem.

This was so successful in the case of the 'The Da Vinci Code' (where the Catholic Church was held to have covered up the fact that Jesus married, had a son and that his descendents are still alive today) that in order to counter the danger of this becoming a widely held real belief, Opus Dei published on its web site on November 16, 2006:

'Many people are intrigued by the claims about Christian history and theology presented in The Da Vinci Code. We would like to remind them that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction, and it is not a reliable source of information on these matters.'

Other Catholic websites carry lengthy rebutting of the novel, point by point. The need to make such statements is a measure of the success achieved in making the conspiracy believable.

You might say that the place where the conspiracy thriller writer aims is somewhere akin to that established by Orson Welles in his radio dramatisation of 'The War of the Worlds', though perhaps inducing a little less paranoia than in that case. And Dan Brown hit that spot with 'The Da Vinci Code'. He has recognized that each of his books requires 'a big idea' and if that leads to controversy and moral dilemma then so be it; the novel is much more likely to achieve its aims.

'The Lost Symbol' aims in this same direction. As was much expected, it concerns the proposition that freemasonry lies behind the buildings in the centre of Washington. By studying the symbology of each and determining the hidden meanings revealed, this conspiracy can be uncovered. Robert Langdon is involved by being forced to assist the evil Mal'akh, a tattooed Mason, who believes that the secret of life has been concealed there and can be recovered. Interestingly, Dan Brown returns to an extent to technothriller territory with the introduction of Noetic science as a major sub theme. Once again it is riveting, page turning stuff that is highly successful but which wins few critical plaudits.

A movie version of 'The Lost Symbol' is planned for release in 2012.

Star rating: *****

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Dan Brown wikipedia page

Opus Dei on 'The Da Vinci Code'

The War of the Worlds radio broadcast

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