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Book Talk: Brad Meltzer, ‘The Escape Artist’

Meltzer notes his twentieth year of publications, not with a Preface or Prologue, but with Acknowledgments at the front of the book. He uses five pages to thank the people who have helped him over the decades, as well as his readers who have made him a bestselling author. I thought it was a nice touch.

“The Escape Artist” (2018, 491 pages in paperback format) is a murder mystery which features Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, a mortician who has devoted his life to preparing the bodies of armed service personnel. His skill is rebuilding heads, faces, and bodies so that victims of the horror of war look presentable to family and friends. Although his work is done at Dover Air Force Base, he has also worked on victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.

This case opens with an airplane crash in Alaska, in which all passengers in an Air Force transport plane were killed, including Nelson Rookstool, Librarian of Congress and friend of President Orson Wallace. But Zig is less interested in him (or the President who shows up on base) than Sgt. Nola Brown, an Army artist-in-residence. She is one of the most enigmatic characters about whom Meltzer has ever written. However, when Zig examines the body, he discovers that it is not Nola because Nola lost part of her left ear years earlier when she shielded Zig’s daughter Maggie from an explosion, saving her life. However, Maggie, who dominates Zig’s thoughts night and day, died a year later.

As everyone else signs off on the body, Zig becomes suspicious that something is wrong about the crash, the persons on board, and the cover-up of the woman who posed as Nola. Although “Master Guns” is the official investigator, Zig takes it upon himself to find out what became of Nola, a brave and valiant soldier before she became an artist-in-residence.

Through a series of flashbacks, which some readers might find a bit distracting but I found fascinating, we learn about Nola’s horrendous early life, a foster kid who grows up with a vicious, drunken malfeasant who makes her every day miserable. The years of mistreatment, however, have made her strong, tough, and nearly void of emotion.

Yet, Zig is determined to reach her and give her whatever help is within his power, despite the fact that he doesn’t really know her, and she is unwilling to discuss her situation with him. Zig needs to penetrate her defenses because he removed a crumpled piece of paper from the stomach of the woman who died on the plane. The paper read, “Nola, you were right. Keep running.”

Throughout the book, we’re reminded of a technique that was described by the late magician Harry Houdini: “The big move covers the little move,” the single most important aspect in slight of hand. And this plot has plenty of “big moves.”

I liked this novel, but I think an editor could have trimmed about a hundred pages without losing any of the important content while maintaining a better level of tension.


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Jim Glynn may be contacted at



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