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The Escape Artist


The Escape Artist

Brad Meltzer is the real deal. Any author who plunders the annals of history --- in his case, U.S. government history --- is going to need to do a fair amount of research. The reason I revere Meltzer so much is that he doesn't just sit back and create clever fiction based on historical context; he himself is a participant in this history. One only needs to watch either “Decoded” or “Lost History” to find that he not just respects history, but he may very well be making history in his own way.

Meltzer has written one heck of a compelling thriller in THE ESCAPE ARTIST, which introduces readers to two unique and engaging characters. Jim "Zig" Zigarowski is a mortician who likes to dedicate his service and unique skill set to those who gave all for their country. His work is done at Dover Air Force Base, and most of his “subjects” are American heroes who had been participating in various clandestine operations.

The other character, who perhaps is the most deeply layered protagonist Meltzer has ever created, is Nola Brown, who has an interesting backstory. She initially worked for the government as an artist while also saving her real talent for the battlefield and beyond, where she was a highly skilled soldier. Nola and Zig are bound by one significant event: when she risked her life to save Zig's daughter, Maggie. Maggie may be deceased, but Zig seems to come alive when Nola enters his life in wild fashion.

This work marks Meltzer's 20th year as a published writer, and he couldn't have picked a better novel to celebrate that milestone. The term “escape artist” might call to mind famous magicians and the various tricks they have performed, the more memorable involving getting out of a life-threatening situation that would easily kill anyone else. Perhaps the most famous of these performers is Harry Houdini. There had long been talk about how Houdini may have been a spy, and you can find several works of fiction and nonfiction that explore this possibility. For the purpose of THE ESCAPE ARTIST, Meltzer uses the name Houdini as a plot device and moniker for another special character. It was a fact that John Elbert Wilkie, a friend of Houdini, was at one time in charge of the U.S. Secret Service. Meltzer indicates in a blurb that opens the novel that “it was the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service.”

"THE ESCAPE ARTIST is a treat, as are any of the great fiction and nonfiction works Meltzer has created. It may very well produce the most desired magic trick for Meltzer as he watches copies of it disappear off bookstore shelves worldwide."

While Zig may represent the moral center of the book, Nola is its heart and soul. Taking her name from New Orleans, Louisiana, she is a young woman dealing with many inner demons. The story keeps jumping back to events told chronologically from Nola's past --- specifically, the physical and mental abuse she took from an adoptive parent who mistreated her during her formative teenage years.

Zig reports to a government official with the tag Master Guns, a decorated Marine who is deeply involved in some high-level, top-secret operations all done at the behest of the President. The book’s big event, and the one that spurs the action and mystery within it, is the downing of a small aircraft in Alaska. There were only a handful of people on that flight, but some of them were very important. For instance, one of the deceased was Nelson Rookstool, head of the Library of Congress. What Zig and many others ask out loud is, “What was the head of the Library of Congress doing on that flight? Was the crash the result of foul play, and, if so, was it because of Rookstool being on board?”

The other problem is that Zig is informed that among the passengers was none other than Nola Brown. He insists on working on these bodies as he is the only one who could correctly identify that the woman thought to be Nola is not her at all. Which is not much of a surprise, since Nola is central to the story --- but it still raises many questions that require answers. In fact, Zig is quick to notice that three of the deceased shared a common trait: they all specialized, like Houdini, in the art of coming back from the dead.

With this type of roadmap and collection of intriguing characters, it is easy to imagine the fun Meltzer had in putting this tale together. As Zig begins his own investigation, one that is fairly bumbling since special ops is not his strength, he runs into many unique and potentially dangerous individuals. Perhaps the most critical person he has put in his path is the elderly magician who runs an old-fashioned magician shop in D.C. that goes by the name The Amazing Caesar. Once Zig gains Caesar's trust, he realizes that he is about to be brought “behind the curtain” into a world of political intrigue, parlor tricks and some really dangerous people.

Zig and Nola prove to be quite resilient. In fact, one character refers to Nola as “a walking Agatha Christie novel,” meaning she brings both mystery and death with her everywhere she goes. Separately, Zig and Nola are good, but together they're dynamite. Nola is already receiving the expected comparisons to Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander. I find that an unfair reference. First of all, they live in very different climates, and Nola seems to have more of a heart than the perpetually dark Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Zig and Nola need to get their hands on Houdini's infamous Blue Book that is purported to focus on the debunking of phony magicians, among other things.

Many characters in THE ESCAPE ARTIST carry monikers that have multiple meanings. I particularly like the character of Horatio, who is aptly named for Horatio G. Cook, a well-known escapist famed for being with Lincoln at Ford's Theater the night of his assassination as well as at the President's deathbed later that evening. That sounds like the setup for an episode of “Lost History”! One thing Zig and especially Nola cannot escape is their past --- and Meltzer has some terrific revelations in store for them that will cause the expected effect of readers’ heads spinning wildly on their shoulders.

THE ESCAPE ARTIST is a treat, as are any of the great fiction and nonfiction works Meltzer has created. It may very well produce the most desired magic trick for Meltzer as he watches copies of it disappear off bookstore shelves worldwide.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 9, 2018

The Escape Artist
by Brad Meltzer

  • Publication Date: March 6, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 434 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1455559520
  • ISBN-13: 9781455559527