Decoding the Hidden Secrets of Dan Brown’s D.C.

September 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown decodes the secrets of Washington D.C. highlighted in Dan Brown's latest novel "The Lost Symbol."

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the extraordinary coming out of Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster novel. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The formal name of this Washington, D.C., building is a mouthful, “The Temple of the Supreme Council of the 33rd and Last Degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Southern Jurisdiction for the United States,” “The House of the Temple” for short.

S. BRENT MORRIS, managing editor, The Scottish Rite Journal: This is our pillars of charity alcove.

JEFFREY BROWN: According to S. Brent Morris of the National Scottish Rite Journal, they’re not used to many visitors here, but that’s all about to change, thanks to Dan Brown and his new novel, “The Lost Symbol.”

S. BRENT MORRIS: What’s attracting them is that the opening scene of the book and the climax of the book occur in this building. People are always attracted by mystery. That’s why they go to see magicians, because they want to see something mysterious happen that they can’t explain. They want to — where a lot of people are attracted to the masons because they perceive us as this mysterious, secretive organization.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, a perfect foil for Brown…

IAN MCKELLEN, Actor: We are in the middle of a war, one that’s been going on forever.

JEFFREY BROWN: … whose “Da Vinci Code,” set amid dark secrets, symbols, and sects of the Catholic Church has sold more than 80 million copies and was made into a film starring Tom Hanks, playing Brown’s hero, Robert Langdon.

In “The Lost Symbol,” Langdon is back. This time, the tweedy Harvard “symbologist” — it’s a made-up term; there’s no such academic discipline — gets caught up in the world of the masons, a fraternity whose origins are said to go back to the 1400s in Britain.

Lodges opened in the 1700s, spreading to the U.S., where members, encouraging free thought and religious tolerance, came to include a number of this country’s founding fathers and future presidents. Today, there are some 4 million to 5 million masons worldwide.

But the group has also been the subject of all kinds of conspiracy theories, including that it secretly controls the government, and the new book plays to such mysteries.

The book sets several scenes at the temple: a portrait of George Washington laying the cornerstone of the Capitol in his mason garb…

S. BRENT MORRIS: This is where we honor various famous masons, Audie Murphy…

JEFFREY BROWN: … the Temple of Architects Hall of Honor, the Hall of Regalia. In the library, Brown has Robert Langdon debunk some myths about the masons and points out that this was the first library in Washington, D.C.

Brown himself explained what attracted him about the masons in a “Today Show” interview.

Mystery boosts book sales

DAN BROWN: The mystery is in their origins and in the fact that they have managed to remain pretty secret. Their rituals are arcane, and, you know, you sort of catch snippets of what their rituals are like, and you can really see a lot of what happens within the organization.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Morris says that Brown gets a lot right, with the occasional fictional flourish.

S. BRENT MORRIS: A lot of the initiation ceremonies he's based upon exposes that have been published for a century. The exposes are as much wrong as they're right. But it's good fiction. I mean, you have to keep in mind that Dan Brown is not an historian, writing an accurate history. He is a storyteller telling a darn-ripping good tale. And if he has to have a double-headed phoenix instead of a double-headed eagle to make the story go better, it's a double-headed phoenix.

JEFFREY BROWN: The new book was released amid great secrecy and, in its first week, has sold more than 2 million copies, the biggest one-week sale in publisher Random House's history, though still dwarfed by the even larger "Harry Potter" phenomenon.

Margaret Soltan, a literature professor at George Washington University, says the Brown marketing machine comes at good time for the ailing publishing industry.

MARGARET SOLTAN: It is dependent on these blockbusters to carry lots of secondary titles. And so it seems to me that when you get something of this magnitude, something of this enormous impact on the culture, you obviously are enabled to go on as a company.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it's not typically cited as great literature, so what's the appeal?

MARGARET SOLTAN: They appeal to a large audience because they're fun to read, they're scary, they're lurid, all those kind of lower emotions they appeal to. The other way of getting at it is that his books are -- they satisfy that curiosity. I mean, serious literature tells you life is mysterious, but at the end of the novel, it's still mysterious. It's even worse, OK? Here, it's mysterious, and things get solved in a very satisfying way.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Shimp would certainly agree. A Dan Brown fanatic, Shimp traveled to Washington today from his home in Oklahoma City on a "Lost Symbol" package offered by a local hotel.

DAVID SHIMP: The way he ends each chapter and begins the next one, there's like three or four storylines going on at any given time, and you get to the end of one chapter, and you have to begin reading the next chapter. You don't have a choice.

That aspect of literary tourism that he's -- that his books have kind of created, it doesn't surprise me at all, just because they are so incredibly well-researched and so specific that it's fun to be able to go to the sites that he talks about.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Now, Dan Brown, author of "The Da Vinci Code," uncovers the most shocking secret of all.

Literary tourism in D.C.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, what "Da Vinci Code" and Brown's other hit, "Angels and Demons," did for London, Paris and Rome, local officials and businesses are hoping "The Lost Symbol" will do for Washington.

Among the sites appearing in the book: the Capitol building, where George Washington laid that cornerstone and where many more Masonic symbols lurk inside; the Smithsonian Institution's famous Castle; and the far less-known "Kryptos" sculpture at the CIA building across the river in Virginia; and a normally ignored statue of one Albert Pike, a sovereign grand commander of the Scottish Rite of Masons.

Barbara Lang, head of the Washington, D.C., Chamber of Commerce, is, of course, more than happy to have her city in the spotlight of such a blockbuster.

BARBARA LANG: Now, you think of Washington as having all the secrets and the political scandals. And people like to -- that makes news. And so people like to see all of that activity in action and say, "I was there."

And, certainly, I know there will be a movie sometime soon, and people will really want to see that. So I think that that brings attention to D.C.'s business community and, more importantly, to the hospitality community that is -- that will experience a lot of that revenue generation.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the meantime, back at "The House of the Temple," they're preparing for the onslaught. Five thousand visitors might come here in a typical year; this year, they're expecting at least 10 times that number.