THE ESCAPE ARTIST is the latest novel by Meltzer, a man who has a healthy respect, understanding, and love of history. If you haven’t read any of his books, you might know him from his TV shows “Decoded” and “Lost History.” He first came onto my radar when he wrote “Identity Crisis” for DC Comics, a graphic novel that shows actual death in the DC Universe and how it affects the characters. The ending of that story reverberated through the comics for years after, and it’s still unnerving. I read his Culper Ring Series featuring Beecher White, an archivist at the National Archives. Any author who can make an archivist a hero is a good writer. I earned two degrees in history and while I may have soured on the political aspects of being a professional historian, I still retain the passion. It’s a passion Meltzer shares and it’s why I enjoy his novels. And don’t’ even get me started on his awesome series of kids’ books focusing on heroes for his son and his daughter.
In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, Meltzer’s excitement for THE ESCAPE ARTIST was palpable. His social media and his newsletter was filled with anticipation that we would soon meet Nola Brown. She is one of the two protagonists in the new book. Taking a page from lost history, Meltzer made Nola the official painter of the US military. Ever since World War I, the military have hired a painter to capture things a photograph cannot: the anguish of war and what it really means. She doesn’t show up for a little while in the book, but her presence does.
The opening chapter shows a military plane taking off from somewhere in Alaska. Soon thereafter, it crashes, but not before the unnamed female character has a chance to write a last message. The message is received by the other protagonist, Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, a mortician who works at Dover Air Force Base. This base is where all our fallen soldiers arrive after they die in service to our country. Zig and the other morticians help to give families closure by fixing up the dead. When the name “Nola Brown” comes across the big board, Zig personally takes it upon himself to work on her corpse. You see, Nola helped saved the life of Zig’s daughter back when they were Girl Scouts. It doesn’t matter that his daughter died a year after that; Nola gave Zig the extra time, and for that, he’ll pay the debt. But the woman identified as Nola Brown is, in fact, not Nola at all. Zig would know because of a particular physical mark on the real Nola. This unidentified woman’s identity is specifically being targeted so as to wipe away Nola’s existence. What gives Zig even more pause is the note he finds in the most unlikely of places: on a piece of paper in the dead woman’s stomach. You see, if a person wanted to pass along a message in the seconds before a disaster strikes (like a plane crash), the person can write a note and swallow it. The stomach acids will preserve the paper and the message. It happened in real life on 9/11with one of the people on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Meltzer took that unknown piece of history and wove it into a spectacular story.
The narrative is divided into two main POVs: that of Zig and Nola. Often, we get “This is Nola at age sixteen” or “This is Nola at age ten” segments where a particular moment of his life is revealed, giving us a greater understanding of what makes her tick. I listened to the audio with my favorite narrator, Scott Brick, is teamed up with January LaVoy who reads Nola’s parts. The combination is fantastic.
As is the story. There are too many layers to note here without spoiling the fun of this book. In January, I discovered THE SHADOW novels from the 1930s and thoroughly devoured all that were available on Audible. Now, I’ve moved on to the reprints in my library. In breathless prose, Meltzer’s writing is clean and precise as always, delivering a bonanza of excitement that would have been right at home in the heyday of pulp fiction, with a heroine who can stand alongside The Shadow himself.