Many of the people who have said, since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, that Dan Brown missed his true calling have said so wistfully, as if he might still give up writing and turn to entomology or marathons. Brown’s deepest understanding is of human nature, not of prose. While he is desperately unable to impart any sort of human nature to his characters, he knows us well enough to string us along like children, promising fantastic mysteries and gifts if we stay with him just a little longer, just turn one more page, just hear him out a few more seconds. What Brown should have been, clearly, is a politician.

Another book: Dan Brown’s The Lost Brown may not be as enjoyable as his earlier book The Da Vinci Code. Paul Goguen / Bloomberg

The remarkable thing about The Lost Symbol, upon which he has worked for six years, is how little its plot matters, and how unoriginal it is. The Lost Symbol sputters into Brownian motion when grisly human remains, positioned just so, give Robert Langdon his first clue. A third of the way through the book, Langdon deploys his most singular and enviable skill, unearthing a female accomplice who is both attractive and luminously intelligent. With Katherine Solomon, Langdon scurries about a capital city (Washington, DC), battles the machinations of a madman (a tattooed kook calling himself Mal’akh), and runs up against a tight-lipped brotherhood (the Freemasons). If you recognize none of this, you are probably that one guy who hasn’t read The Da Vinci Code—so you may be excused for not knowing that everything points to one of mankind’s most ancient secrets, one so powerful that it can rock the very foundations of civilization. We will wait for you on the other side of that particular anticlimax.

Using those two pet words—“ancient" and “secret"—as crutches, Brown hobbles his way through this bloated book, not so concerned with reaching any sort of conclusion as with simply paving his pages with codes and trivia. You can’t take a step without painfully stubbing your toe on some protruding factoid—that the necktie was created because Roman orators needed to keep their vocal cords warm, or that the Hindu chant Aum derives from the name of the Egyptian god Amon, or that mankind’s toilet-holes have always been round because the circle is the perfect shape, signifying the eternal cycle of life and death. I only made one of those up.

These factoids are as addictive as hits of cocaine, and Brown is a generous enabler. But the orgy is wearying, especially when our heroes exchange hefty Wikipedia chunks in lieu of conversation, and when our curiosity is stoked by banalities that made my teeth ache. (‘“Actually, Katherine, it’s not gibberish." His eyes brightened again with the thrill of discovery. “It’s … Latin."’) And our reward, for ploughing through 500-odd pages, is a disappointment of almost unimaginable proportions: The foundations of civilization stay unrocked, characters indulge in one last abstract pontification, and life, minus a tattooed kook, goes on. Or rather, not quite; the perceptive reader, turning the final page, will realize, her eyes brightening with the thrill of discovery, that something has indeed changed. Dan Brown has sold another book.

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