In The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer, a mortician for fallen soldiers becomes an unlikely hero as he helps a young woman from his past battle a murderous organization.
Brad Meltzer has returned to his roots as a thriller author in The Escape Artist, a fast-paced novel with protagonists who are easy to root for as well as some nuggets of history about magician Houdini’s history with the U.S. government. After Meltzer took time from his fiction to work on TV shows, comic books, and an inspirational children’s book series, longtime fans of his thrillers should be pleased with this novel.
Some of Meltzer’s novels focus heavily on uncovered historical conspiracies. The Escape Artist has some historical revelations centered on the magic tricks Houdini turned for the government, and Meltzer does strong research, as always, into the inner workings of the government. But it’s main focus is the two engrossing protagonists and their battle for survival.
As a middle-aged mortician at Dover Air Force Base, Jim “Zig” Zigarowsk isn’t the most likely candidate to battle wits and fists with professional killers. The man lives with death every day, taking pride in dressing up the corpses of national heroes so their families can view their remains in peace. His life is in paralysis. Zig has never gotten over the death of his young daughter, 14 years ago. He can’t sleep until he check’s his ex-wife’s Facebook page.
When a military plane crashes in Alaska under mysterious circumstances, the seven corpses are shipped to Dover. Zig recognizes one of the victims on the list: Nola Brown, an awkwardly quiet child who’d saved his daughter’s life and granted them one more year together. However, when Zig examines the corpse, he quickly realizes it isn’t her. It’s another soldier named Kamille.
Decided he owes a debt to Nola Brown—and secretly hoping that meeting her will rekindle a memory of his late daughter—Zig vows to help her. What he lacks in brute strength, firepower, and in some cases, smarts, Zig makes up for in heart. It’s quickly apparent that someone wants Nola Brown dead, and that someone can keep tabs on Zig as well as access the secure military base with ease.
It’s obvious to the reader, and eventually to Zig, that someone on the inside at Dover has joined the bad guys. The ringleader, who goes by the codename Houdini, won’t hesitate to kill anyone who prevents him from finding and eliminating Nola. This doesn’t deter Zig in the least.
Similar to Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Nola is an orphan who suffered terrible abuse from her guardian and, as an adult, can’t form meaningful bonds with people. Nola’s most amazing talent is her art, which was her primary job in the military. Yes, the military does have a fulltime artist. When she draws someone, Nola sees their weaknesses. That aids her with her other skill: kicking ass.
When Zig finally finds her, she refuses his help and tries ditching him at every turn.
“Nola, whatever’s going on, you owe it to Kamille to find the truth. I can help you with that.”
“I’m not twelve anymore. I don’t need your help.”
“You sure about that? You’re officially deceased. That means your IDs won’t work, and neither will whatever classified security clearances you once had. At least with me, whatever doors you’re planning to bang on next, you keep the element of surprise, which, far as I can tell, is the only thing you’ve got going in your favor right now.”
Nola glanced back down at the crack in the cement. “Why’re you doing this, Mr. Zigarowski?”
Zig and Nola make an odd duo. While Zig is willing to charge in unarmed and confront professional killers—not recommended—to save her, Nola shows him no gratitude. She has no problem manipulating him for her gain, which is understandable given how her adopted father abused her in much the same way. It would be way easier, and safer, for Zig to walk away and let Nola fight this battle herself. But he’s just as stubborn as she is—almost to the point of getting himself killed.
It becomes clear that for this unlikely duo to out-trick Houdini and company, they better start working together.
The Escape Artist has plenty of suspenseful fight scenes for thriller fans, and those confrontations are more interesting because of Zig’s limitations in combat. This mortician has heart, but he’s no Bruce Willis beating up muscle-bound 20-year-olds. As long as the reader can buy that a civilian would repeatedly risk his life for someone he barely knows and who rejects his help, this is another engrossing read from Meltzer.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Brian Bandell writes science fiction and mystery thrillers for Silver Leaf Books at http://www.silverleafbooks.com/Authors_Bandell.htm. He’s a senior reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. You can also follow him at @brianbandell