No 'Escape' . . .

Author Brad Meltzer opens his latest novel at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Photo by Michelle Watson, Catchlight Group

Author Brad Meltzer launches a new series character with his latest novel

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

New York Times best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer meticulously plans and plots his mystery-thriller novels.

“And then the characters come to life and tell me that they’re tearing apart my plans and doing their own thing,” said Meltzer, 47, of Florida.

This happened with his two new lead characters, Nola Brown and Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, in his latest novel “The Escape Artist” (Grand Central Publishing $28), which debuted March 6.

“And for me, it’s the very best part of writing,” said Meltzer, an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School.

The book opens at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where Zig, a mortician, must prepare the body of soldier Nola Brown, a young woman he knew as a child who once saved his daughter’s life. However, Zig realizes this dead woman is not Nola.

Launching his own investigation, Zig learns Nola is the U.S. Army’s artist-in-residence and a highly trained special operative. Her job is to rush into battle, making art from war’s aftermath and sharing her unique observations about today’s wars that otherwise would be overlooked.

“When we were filming the very first episode of our TV show, ‘Lost History,’ we were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: the artist-in-residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person – an actual artist – who they send out in the field to paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen,” explained Meltzer.

One of the greatest traditions in our military, these war artists as they’re called go, see, paint, and catalogue the battle-scene, the victories, and the mistakes, whether it’s the dead on D-Day, the injured at Mogadishu, or the sandbag pilers during Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the artist-in-residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter.

“From there, Nola came to life in my head,” said Meltzer. “Imagine an artist/soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. ‘The Escape Artist’ started right there.”

On her last mission, Nola sees something she wasn’t supposed to see, earning her enemies that go all the way up to the highest echelons of power in the U.S. government. They will do whatever it takes to keep her silent. Alongside Zig, Nola must uncover the Army’s most mysterious secret: A centuries-old conspiracy that traces back through history to the greatest escape artist of all time – Harry Houdini. Or die trying.

Meltzer had unprecedented access to Dover while researching this book.

“It’s a place I never thought the government would let me into,” confessed Meltzer. “For those who don’t know, Dover is home to the mortuary for the U.S. government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of (more than) 50,000 soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.”

He continued: “In the building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries, surprises, and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery.”

According to Meltzer, Zig is named after a real person known as Zig, but he’s also an amalgam of all the morticians he met at Dover.

“These are men and women who rebuild hands – rather than giving a fake prosthesis – so that a mother can hold her son’s hand one final time,” said Meltzer. “Or who spend 14 straight hours wiring together a fallen soldier’s shattered jaw, then smoothing it over with clay and makeup, just so they could give his parents far more ease than they ever should’ve expected at their son’s funeral. A few of them, like my fictional Zig, will never put in for overtime.”

Meltzer stated that Nola and Zig – and the broken parts of their souls – reflect his own worst moments and fears.

“Fortunately, their lives are far more devastating than mine. But their paths out of loneliness and sorrow are exactly the same: It’s the story at the center of every life. We all need to love and be loved. It’s the only way Zig and Nola will ever pull off the hardest magic trick of all: Coming back to life after a tragedy,” he said.


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