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Book review: Meltzer's 'Escape Artist' a bright start to new series

Correspondent

‘The Escape Artist’ By Brad Meltzer. Grand Central, 432 pages, $28

Brad Meltzer’s novels come with certain expectations: a plot filled with carefully researched but often obscure bits of American history and the government. Those facts may seem far-fetched but are nevertheless true and elevate the characters’ adventures.

The highly entertaining “The Escape Artist” — which marks Meltzer’s 20th anniversary as an author — follows his formula with aplomb. In “The Escape Artist,” readers will learn about the Army’s artist-in-residence position; Dover Air Force, where fallen soldiers and some high-profile figures are prepared for burial; and that the legacy of magicians in government, which dates to Abraham Lincoln (and we are not referring to the sleight-of-hand of some politicians). While these tidbits are prominent in the plot, Meltzer never allows his research to overwhelm the action-packed novel.

“The Escape Artist” introduces mortician Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, destined to be one of Meltzer’s most fully formed heroes in this series launch. Zig handles the U.S. government’s most top-secret, and often sensitive, cases at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Dealing with so much death and treating each deceased with sensitivity and respect helps Zig deal with the grief that continues over his daughter’s death more than a decade ago.

Zig’s personal and professional worlds combine when he is preparing the body of soldier Nola Brown, who died in an Alaskan plane crash along with seven others. As a child, Nola saved Zig’s daughter at a Girl Scout camp, and he has never forgotten. But as he inspects the body, he realizes it is not Nola because the corpse lacks the scars he knows she had. A note found on the deceased piques his curiosity. As a tribute to his daughter, Zig is determined to find out what happened to Nola, and, if she is in trouble, help her.

Meltzer keeps the action crackling as he delves into the background and motives of both Zig and Nola. Each is a complicated character whose motives are realistically explored. Zig has isolated himself from relationships since his daughter died. His grief is palpable, “the most profound pain that death delivered: the utter numbness that comes from when you can’t get over it but somehow get used to it.” Nola grew up in an abusive foster home in which she learned inner strength and how to spot weaknesses in others. She has created a solitary life because she fears attachments to anyone, or anything.

Meltzer makes us care deeply about both Zig and Nola and is planning for both characters to return in his next novel.

Meanwhile, there’s no escaping the solid storytelling of “The Escape Artist.”

Meet the author

Brad Meltzer will discuss “The Escape Artist” at 2 p.m. March 10 at the Alvin Sherman Library, on the campus of Nova Southeastern University, 3100 Ray Ferrero Jr. Blvd., Davie. Registration required for this free event; email libdev@nova.edu or call 954-262-4593; and at 7 p.m. March 10 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, 305-442-4408.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com.

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