Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lost Station

I have a confession. I'm a Dan-Brown-o-holic. Sophomore year, my roommate having just finished "Angels and Demons," would not stop talking to me about it until I read the book. And I enjoyed it. So I read "The DiVinci Code" too.

And when I heard that his newest Robert Langdon adventure was to take place right here in Washington, I was especially excited. But I was determined to wait until the book came out in paperback.

And then Atlanta got socked by the worst storms in recent memory. And my flight out of DCA was delayed, and the Borders in the airport had them on sale, and I splurged. Long story short, I enjoyed the book. Don't worry, I won't spoil the end for you. But I do have to take issue with Chapter 78.

In Chapter 76, after gallivanting across Washington by car, Langdon and his beautiful sidekick find themselves in Freedom Plaza, near the White House. Needing to get to Alexandria, they abandon their taxi and smartly dash into the Metro Center subway station. The CIA, which is trying to head them off, decides to set up an ambush for them at King Street.

While I'd been to a few of the landmarks mentioned in "The Lost Symbol", none is more familiar than Metro. So I was excited that it had made it into the text. But by the end of Chapter 78, I was disappointed in Mr. Brown's lack of effort.

It is clear that he has seen a map of the Metro. But it is also clear that he's never been on it.

Arriving at the foot of the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, the CIA team runs "down into King Street Station." Unfortunately, while the Metro has quite a few underground stations, King Street is not one of them. In fact, it offers wonderful views of the Masonic memorial from it's elevated platform. A google image search for "King Street Station Alexandria" reveals this property of the station. So would a glance at aerial imagery available on google maps or oblique aerials from's maps.

The view from King Street's platforms is not obscured by being underground

Brown's CIA team continues into the station, discovering that it "was larger than Simkins had anticipated, apparently serving several different lines - Blue, Yellow, and Amtrak." Brown is part right, mostly wrong. The station complex does serve Blue, Yellow, and Amtrak trains. It also serves VRE trains. But the Amtrak and commuter rail services happen in the adjacent Alexandria Union Station. It's not even connected to the Metro station. Transferring passengers have to exit the Metro and use the sidewalk along King Street's underpass of the Metro and railroad tracks to get to the Amtrak stop. In fact, King Street is precisely the same size as just about all of the Metro stops. It has a spartan mezzanine below the two tracks with a single island platform.

Asking the station manager when the next Blue Line train from Metro Center is due, the frightened WMATA employee tells the CIA leader from her "ticket booth" that "there's no set schedule." In fact, WMATA trains operate on a schedule available on their website. In fairness to Mr. Brown, they do hide it under the menu "Rail > Schedules", but a little digging would have revealed the Blue Line's arrival times in all their white-and-green PDF glory. And station agents don't sell tickets from their booths - or anywhere else for that matter.

Shifting back to Langon and accomplice, Brown describes their railcar as having "hard plastic seats". Fortunately for Metro's almost 800,000 daily riders, WMATA provides nice cushioned seats. Not that they don't start to get uncomfortable on the ride out to Shady Grove, but they're definitely on the soft side of "hard."

The narrative returns to King Street, where the CIA agents were "taking up positions behind the support pillars that ran the length of the platform." One of the things that Washington's subway stations are famous for is having few support pillars. Their airy vaults were meant to be exactly the opposite of the claustrophobic boxes seen everywhere else. There are columns used for air circulation and lighting, but they aren't support pillars. Brown's characterization of them as such is meant to give readers a very different image than they would experience - if King Street was underground.

The vault soars over trains at Stadium-Armory

As the train enters the station, the CIA leader shouts out "these trains are automated, but they all have a conductor who opens the doors. Find him!" ... "In the third car, Simkins finally saw the startled face of the conductor..." Metro's trains are computer controlled, to some degree. But they are not automated. Door functions and announcements are made by an operator, who also can drive the train, but the train can't move without the operator being in the cab. In fact, since the June 22 accident, all trains are driven in manual control. For obvious reasons, the operator sits in the front of the train. What I believe has happened here is that Brown has in fact ridden a subway system like New York's. In that case, most trains actually operate with a motorman, who drives the train, and a conductor, who opens and closes doors and makes announcements. When Brown discovered that WMATA's trains were computer controlled but still had an attendant, he assumed that only the conductor was aboard, and that he or she rode somewhere in the middle of the consist, as is the case in NYC.

I've talked before about movies getting their facts wrong, and how it irks me. Especially when the gaffe has nothing to do with the plot. With a book, there are fewer constraints. Movie makers can't always film what they want or where they want in regards to transit. In the recent Pelham remake, the motorman's console is depicted on the left side of the cab. This allows the actual motorman to drive the train from the real console on the right. So while not as preferable, the reason makes it acceptable to me.

But in a book, Brown has pages and pages. He doesn't have to cut scenes for time or budget. His descriptions are how he allows readers into his fantasy world. He owes it to us to be as accurate as possible, especially since his books often rely on real-world locations. A trip to DC wouldn't have cost him all that much. He's sold millions of books and lives in New England, the airfare wouldn't bankrupt him. In fact, he probably did visit DC for some of the scouting for his book.

But he didn't bother to ride the subway. And he didn't bother to google it either. And I think that's what irks me the most. He didn't even try.

It's still an exciting read though.


JCCIC said...

I gotta say, I completely agree with you. The Metro references were both exciting and irritating for the very reasons you outlined.

Thanks so much for putting my idiosyncratic irritation with an otherwise fantastic book into words!

Anonymous said...

Maybe the author decided to leave out all of those details to bring an increased sense of excitement to the book. I do agree with you though.

There was a scene in Mission Impossible 3, where Tom Cruise's character had to get from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to
Alexandria in 20 or 30 minutes. Aint happenin. I don't care what kind of car it is. It probably wouldn't happen in a helicopter either.

Alexander al-Fahim said...

Also true of the description of the Tenleytown-AU station. When you take the escalator back to the street level, there is NO WAY you can possible see the National Cathedral...none. They should have gotten of the Red line at Cleveland Park, it would have been a lot closer. Google Maps says 1.3 miles to walk from Tenleytown to the Cathedral, pretty far to hoof it when the CIA is chasing you with cars/helicopters!

kenf said...

Brown also created a Louvre Museum in DaVinci Code that had little resemblance to the bricks and mortar version in Paris.

Maybe if he actually visited the places he writes about? He can afford to travel.

Anonymous said...

Actually, you can see the Cathedral, straight down Wisc Ave from the Tenley metro station. While the Cleveland Park station might be physically closer, it is down hill by a considerable part and def not visible.

Froggie said...

Matt, I think you're reading too much into the chapter...

(yes, pun intended)

eonbluekarma said...

It does bother me that the King street station was incorrectly described, but I am sure he and his editors new the facts and chose to write it that way for dramatic effect.