“The Escape Artist” by Brad Meltzer once again proves he is the master of secrets. His books always delve into the hidden stories of the characters and governmental conspiracies. He has a knack for finding out and then writing about interesting topics that are not widely well-known, incorporating them into a thrilling story.
The book starts off with a bang when one of the passengers jumps out of a plane without a parachute before it crashes to the ground. It might have received little notice except that one of the passengers was the Librarian of Congress and a good friend of President Orson Wallace. A little tidbit, this is the same president who appeared in Meltzer’s previous series.
Following the crash, Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, a very skilled mortician at Dover Air Force Base, is assigned to perform his magic on the bodies of those who crashed. He has unique reconstructive talents that has made it possible for families to view the peaceful remains of their lost loved ones.
One of the bodies from the plane crash is Nola Brown, a name Zig recognizes immediately since she saved his daughter, Maggie, and lost a portion of her ear in the process. Zig’s sadness turns to surprise after realizing the body in front of him had no ear damage, making Zig positive that it was not Nola.
Through the investigation, Zig uncovers that Nola is the U.S. Army’s artist-in-residence, a painter and trained soldier who rushes into battle, making art from war’s aftermath and sharing observations about today’s wars that would otherwise go overlooked. Together, they uncover a sinister scheme called Operation Bluebook, based on the magician Harry Houdini’s secret way of revealing fake fortune-tellers, separating truth from lies. Zig and Nola must find who is behind Bluebook before the conspirators can kill them.
Elise Cooper: What prompted you to base a story around what is done at Dover Air Force Base?
Brad Meltzer: Six years ago, as part of a USO trip to entertain the troops in the Middle East, I learned about the heroes at Dover. While there I heard about all these suicides and attempts. This is one of these things no one wants to talk about, and at Dover I saw how many fallen had come from self-inflicted wounds.
This was devastating to me. I also found out some of the biggest cases go there from those who went down on the Space Shuttle to some 9/11 bodies. I show Dover as a place full of secrets.
EC: You made Nola the Army’s artist in residence?
BM: I was on this military base and saw the Fort Belvior’s Museum Support Center, which had a bunch of paintings. I remember thinking, “Why does the U.S. military and government have all of this art?” I met war artists, the artists in residence, and found out since World War I the U.S. Army has a painter on staff who paints scenes.
They can go wherever they want, having a free reign to create their art. For example, they can dilate someone’s eyes to make them look scared. Unlike a video that just captures a moment, they can show a full story. This is where Nola was born.
EC: Were the scenes about Dover realistic?
BM: Yes. When I went there I saw an insider’s view that was so humbling. Some of the sculptors and artists could spend 14 hours rebuilding a cheekbone or someone’s face so that the family can say goodbye properly. I was told of one case where they rebuilt someone’s hand because the mother wanted to hold it one last time.
EC: How would you describe Zig?
BM: He is named after a real guy who works at Dover. My Zig is a combination of every single person I met there. Everyone there has a sense of mission and handles the bodies with dignity, honor and trust. I hoped I showed that through the Zig character. In the fiction part of the story, Ziggy is broken and lonely. He has to get out of the crater and get back to life. A book quote, “Just because you are dead, does not mean you are alive.”
EC: How would you describe Nola?
BM: She is my favorite character I have ever written. Even though she is drawn to disaster, she fights like a wolverine. I will take with appreciation what Harlan Coben wrote about Nola, “Not since ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ have you seen a character like this. Get ready to meet Nola.”
EC: You have an interesting tidbit. Is it true?
BM: I assume you are referring to John Wilke, who was a friend of Henry Houdini, a magician, and the first head of the U.S. Secret Service. Over time he turned Houdini’s Bluebook into a full-fledged government program, sneaking undercover agents and troops into key locations. They became the ultimate observers, hiding in plain sight, just like Houdini’s hidden assistants. The modern part of what I wrote is fiction, but it is based on Houdini’s Bluebook.
EC: What do you want readers to get out of the book besides good entertainment?
BM: I want readers to see the real American heroes that we do not know are even there. The average American knows nothing about Dover. The country needs heroes like this. They are the best of the best of us, who work on the best of the best.
EC: What is your next book?
BM: It will be a children’s book, titled “I am Neil Armstrong.” Each of my children’s books are a value lesson more so than a history lesson. This book is about teamwork with a big emphasis on humility. I think our children need to be reminded about important values such as being humble.