Anyone who's read a Brad Meltzer novel knows the writer really does his research.
While the author's attention to detail has resulted in a long list of best-sellers, now it's the subject of a new television show on History.
Brad Meltzer's Decoded, a 10-part series that premieres Thursday, December 2nd at 10 p.m., features the writer and a team of experts researching and unraveling American mysteries that have grown into legends, but haven't been fully investigated.
"One of the heads of the History Channel read my novel, The Book of Fate, and said, 'We should do a show that's like that," Meltzer said. "It was a book about the Freemasons and secret codes that Thomas Jefferson invented and used throughout his presidency, and amazing things like that built on real history."
The TV show builds on that idea of unexplored mysteries by asking questions like, "Is there a hidden message buried in the Statue of Liberty?" and, "Could it be true that John Wilkes Booth lived for 40 years after his presumed death under an assumed identity?"
Meltzer honed his research skills while writing seven novels and several comics, including Identity Crisis and Justice League of America. And according to the author, his fascination with superhero stories is related to the premise of the show.
"I think it's no different than my love for comics. I love mythology, and that's what this TV show is: It's American mythology," Meltzer said. "We're a country founded on our myths. Sometimes it's Superman and sometimes it's George Washington. I think in some places, some people would giggle at that comparison, but I think it's on the money. They become bigger than life and stories get built onto them, fairly or unfairly, and people take inspiration from them.
"I'm just fascinated with that," he said.
The show combines Meltzer's curiosity with the expertise of his three co-hosts: Buddy Levy, a professor and journalist; Christine McKinley, a mechanical engineer; and Scott Role, a skeptical trial lawyer. The show's format explores several angles of each mystery — even allowing the most extreme conspiracy theories to be voiced — but then boils it all down to the truth through interviews and research.
"As Google or any other search engine will show you, you don't even know what you're searching through anymore when it comes to finding out what's truth and what's not," Meltzer said. "Put the word Freemason in Google and watch what comes up, and it's everything from they're taking over the world to they're stealing your car right now. We try to find out the truth."
The Freemasons actually play a part in the first mystery Meltzer explores on the show's premier episode: the missing cornerstone of the White House.
In 1792, the first piece of the White House was put down in an elaborate ceremony, but within 24 hours, that cornerstone and its commemorative plaque had apparently gone missing, Meltzer said.
"For 200 years, nobody knows where it is," he said. "And Harry Truman goes looking for it during his presidency. And Barbara Bush goes looking for it during the anniversary celebration. And for 200 years, no one can find the first piece of the White House. The Freemasons put it down, but then it seems to have disappeared and no one knows what happened."
The show exposes several little-known facts, like President Truman's decision to send pieces of the White House to the Freemasons. "Harry Truman brought in a minesweeper to see where the cornerstone was, to find the bronze plaque, and when the beep-beep-beep starts going off, Harry Truman says, 'You know what? Let's not search here anymore. We're done,'" Meltzer said. "And then, later sends pieces of the actual White House, with Masonic markings on it, to all the grand lodges around the United States, and nobody says a word? And nobody knows this story?"
While pursuing the cornerstone mystery, the first episode goes where few cameras have ever gone — into the headquarters of the Freemasons. "Nobody films in there," Meltzer said. "I think we were only the third people who were ever allowed to bring a camera in there. It's almost unprecedented access."
It doesn't hurt that Meltzer has done research on many of these things before, but the writer also used his comics experience to his advantage. "It's amazing what writing Justice League of America can do!" Meltzer said with a laugh. "People come out and tell you stories that you otherwise wouldn't hear. We do this great show on John Wilkes Booth that came out of a comic book fan who told me he represented the Wilkes family and was digging up his body. And we go back in the show, even to the fact that there was a mummified version of him, which sounds crazy, but is actually true."
The writer said he and his team were even able to add some facts to the historical record when researching what happened with Meriwether Lewis of "Lewis and Clark" fame. "He used to send secret codes back and forth with Thomas Jefferson," Meltzer said. "I don't want to spoil all the shows, but we dig into several mysteries like that.
"And some of our stories are more modern and take place in complete modern day, which is fun because we can actually go back and ask the sources themselves," he added.
Although his name is recognizable, Meltzer finds the thought of hosting a TV show comical, being more used to writing the information than sitting in front of a camera.
"I can't possibly see it as anything but insane," Meltzer said with a laugh. "It's called Brad Meltzer's Decoded, as if I say in my house, 'Honey, what are we having for Brad Meltzer's dinner tonight? Because yesterday I had Brad Meltzer's pasta and tonight I'd like to have Brad Meltzer's chicken.' I can't possibly look at it and say, 'Yes! I'm so used to having my face and giant bald head on television.'"
And for comic book fans, the time Meltzer has taken to work on the show might be a little disappointing, since it's taking him away from time he'd spend writing. "I treat this show exactly as I treat the comic books, which is that I can do them between the novels, and they help me refresh my brain and make sure that when the next novel comes out, it doesn't feel like a retread," he said. "I will admit that this show definitely took me away from what would usually be my comic book window. But trust me, I want to get back to opening that window again."Will you be tuning in?