I have a confession: I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code. Yes, yes, I know, it's overwrought and overdone and over the top. But there's a reason it sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. It's good old-fashioned cliffhanging storytelling at its best. Not everyone agrees, of course. At a 2005 lecture at the University of Kansas (as gleefully recorded by the Lawrence Journal-World), Salman Rushdie said: "Do not start me on The Da Vinci Code. A novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name." This, from an author whose readers wanted to kill him.
But he misses the point. Think Mickey Spillane, creator of the pulpy Mike Hammer novels, who called his own work "the chewing gum of American literature." On Spillane's death, in 2006, Robert B. Parker, heir to the tradition embodied in Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlow, told the Associated Press: "He said to me once, 'I don't have readers, I have customers.'" And customers, Spillane once said, "are your friends."
So what about The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown's third instalment in the code-cracking adventures of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon? (A little drum roll, please.) It's an absolute hoot. You'll laugh ("'Actually, Katherine, it's not gibberish.' His eyes brightened again with the thrill of discovery. 'It's ... Latin.'"), you'll cry ("'Katherine ...' he stammered, blinking his grey eyes as if to make sure he was not dreaming. 'I think you just weighed the human soul.'"), but you'll keep turning the pages.
It's been nine years since the professor raced through Rome (okay, Angels & Demons was truly awful, although certainly better than the movie) and six years since he raced through Paris and London, uncovering secrets that rocked Christianity at every turn. Now, after being lured to the Capitol Rotunda and the severed hand of a mentor, he's racing through Washington (no surprise, since Americans aren't travelling abroad as much) desperately seeking Masonic pyramids and ancient portals.
The villain? Forget about self-flagellating albino monks. This time, it's a self-tattooed, self-castrated ("if they only knew my power") Masonic initiate.
Yes, the book has problems - it's a Dan Brown novel, for God's sake - and it's easy to mock. Too much italic. Expository monologues. Wooden prose. Too long. Too preachy. Grey-eyed characters at every turn. But here's the thing: Brown knows how to tell a story, he knows how to keep it moving, he does what a writer's supposed to do: entertain.
The reaction so far? Mixed, of course. But on its first day on sale, according to the publisher, The Lost Symbol sold more than one million copies in hardcover and e-book versions in the United States, Britain and Canada. For those who shake their heads, it could've been worse. "I've got four refrigerator-size boxes of pages that didn't make it into The Lost Symbol," Brown told The Wall Street Journal.
Larry Orenstein is a member of Crime Writers of Canada and an editor in the Comment section of The Globe and Mail.