By Monica Hesse and David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 10, 2009; C01
Washingtonians, brace yourselves.
In just six days, residents will awaken to find themselves in a changed city. One invaded by Founding Fathers scandal, by fictitious Harvard symbologists, by very short chapters ending in cliffhangers and exclamation points! One to which the tourists will flock, brandishing conspiracy theories. We want the real story, they'll say to helpless docents at the Smithsonian, perhaps, or the Scottish Rite Masonic temple. This is the real story, docents will reply. No, the reeeeal story. Wink wink.
Washington is about to be Dan Browned.
The inciting incident is the release of "The Lost Symbol," the third installment of Brown's mondo-selling adventure zeitgeist, sequel to "Angels & Demons" and "The Da Vinci Code." In "Angels," professor Robert Langdon races through Rome, saving the city from an explosion and uncovering religious secrets that rock Christianity to the core. In "Da Vinci," he races through Paris and London, solving a mysterious death and uncovering religious secrets that rock Christianity to the core.
In "The Lost Symbol," Langdon will be back again, this time racing through Washington. What exactly he'll be doing here is unclear. In the five-plus years Brown has been researching and writing this novel, nary an important plot point has leaked.
This much is known: The initial print run of "The Lost Symbol" is 5 million copies, the largest in Random House history, the publisher claims. Clues found on the novel's recently released cover, combined with decoded messages from the "Da Vinci" jacket and elsewhere ("Is there no help for the widow's son?"), suggest that Freemason history will play a central role.
People. Are. Freaking. Out.
The "Today" show has begun a week-long Dan Brown blitz, featuring Matt Lauer traipsing around the Washington locations expected to appear in the novel. Over on Amazon.com, a corporate notice assured readers that the site is securing its "Lost Symbol" stockpile "under 24-hour guard in its own chain-link enclosure, with two locks requiring two separate people for entry." Facebookers and Twitterers have been feverishly working overtime to decipher the novel-related clues -- such as "AOFACFSOA FSZWBEIC EIOA ZOHSFWQWOA OQQSDW" -- frequently posted by Brown's marketing team on his social networking pages.
Masons are preparing themselves.
"I'm expecting [tourism] to skyrocket," says Heather Calloway, director of special programs for the Masonic House of the Temple on 16th Street NW, which receives about 10,000 visitors a year. She will double the staff of part-time tour guides, if necessary, to handle the crush.
"We might have to spend the next 25 years responding to Dan Brown's fiction," says Mark Tabbert, director of collections at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria. "That's what I dread." (Think he's overstating? Wait until you hear from his European counterparts, who are still drowning in their own Brown invasions.)
Then there's the "Lost Symbol" companion industry: the piles of documentaries, Web sites and books created to analyze the meaning of a novel that has not yet come out.
"It's all about, what's Dan Brown going to assert?" says author Dan Burstein, who edited companion work "Secrets of the Widow's Son" back in 2005 based on his early research. He has another book coming out in December called "Secrets of the Lost Symbol."
"Could he go in the direction of human cloning?" Burstein wonders. "Could some Freemasons . . . could they have known something about the cloning? And now we hear that Dan Brown is interested in the Rosicrucians," a secret society of mystics formed in medieval Europe. "So what does that mean? Some theories say the Rosicrucians had a piece of the cross. Maybe if you had bloodstains on some pieces of the cross, you could clone Christ."
Burstein is one of many scholars who operate in a tiny and speculative field: What Would Dan Brown Do?
Why Should Anyone Care?
Brown might be one of the best-sellingest authors of recent times (81 million copies for "Da Vinci"), but almost everyone agrees that, literarily, he stinks. The linguist Geoffrey Pullum once described his writing as "not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad," which might explain why in some circles people brag about not having read "The Da Vinci Code."
Still, there is something exuberant about that preposterous prose. Brown's books contain everything the human brain thrives on: breakneck pacing, bite-size didja-knows, looming conspiracies, Scooby-Doo plot twists. His books are literary crack, or, in PG terms, they are Harry Potter for grown-ups. His notorious reclusiveness only adds to his mystique; for every interview he declines and cryptic clue his team tweets, his persona increasingly resembles the enigmatic characters of his novels. Like Robert Langdon, the man wears tweed.
But his greatest achievement, arguably, is the outsize impact his fictitious novels have had on the cities in which they're set.
When Dan Brown comes to town, things get a little bit nutty.
Just ask Colin Glynne-Percy, director of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, the rural Scottish church featured in "The Da Vinci Code," which Langdon believed to be the location of the Holy Grail.
"Before the book came out, we had about 40,000 visitors a year," Glynne-Percy says. "It went to 80,000. Then to 120,000. Then to 175,000. We had very small facilities. We had only two restrooms. We could survive on that for 40,000 but . . ." They've put in temporary bathrooms and added several new staff members.
Just ask Robin Griffith-Jones, master of the Temple Church in London, which makes the eensiest of cameos in "Da Vinci." (Langdon pops in to search for clues on the stone effigies' decorative orbs, then pops out.)
This minor role hasn't stopped tourists from roaming the circular nave in search of the orbs examined by Langdon.
Small problem: "There is no question of any orb in this church," Griffith-Jones says. "Knights didn't have orbs. Only kings had orbs," and it's mostly knights depicted at the temple. Griffith-Jones began offering a weekly lecture to dispel the myths of "Da Vinci" and eventually wrote a book on the subject. Still the tourists come. "I feel like King Canute, with the rising ocean tide I cannot stem."
In Italy, more of the same. One Roman tour guide describes how her tours of the Colosseum were so frequently interrupted by tourists more interested in "Angels & Demons" faux-history that she had to create a special tour for them.
Washingtonians, we are next.
Already, Old Town Trolley Tours is considering a Secret Symbols tour of Washington. Already, the Masonic Service Association in Silver Spring is readying a special truth-squad Web site to fact-check "The Lost Symbol."
"We're in the cross hairs," says S. Brent Morris, managing editor of the Scottish Rite Journal. "It could be good; it could be bad. We've decided to take a deep breath, take a chill pill and see what happens."
Back in Britain, Griffith-Jones is also keeping an eye on the release of "The Lost Symbol."
"I'm very slightly worried that if the next book focuses on the Freemasons, then there will be mention of the Knights Templar," he says.
Which would be a problem because . . .
"We were built by the Knights Templar. It will all start again."