The Escape Artist

I read The Escape Artist, by Brad Meltzer, in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to NetGalley and to Grand Central Publishing, for the pre-publication copy. As usual with Meltzer’s books, it is full of mystery and intrigue that kept me guessing almost until the very end.

A plane has just left a secret military base in Alaska, and crashes seconds after take-off. There were no survivors, or were there? One of the passengers, Nola Brown’s body is found near the site of the crash. She is believed to be dead. Her superiors confirm it.

Jim Zigarowski (“Zig”) is a mortician skilled in rebuilding the faces of fallen soldiers whose families, otherwise, would not be able to have an open casket at their loved ones’ funerals. Zig knew Nola when she was a child, and knew that the top of her left ear was missing from a childhood accident in which Nola saved  his daughter. He sees immediately that the body was not Nola’s.

Nola is the artist-in-residence for the U.S. Army, and is and trained soldier who rushes to battle sites, painting scenes of war’s aftermath, and sharing observations about war that would otherwise go unnoticed. On the trip to Alaska, she witnesses illegal cash transactions, which puts her life in jeopardy.

When the body of the mystery woman is stolen, Zig looks up Nola, and together, they risk their lives to expose the crime, and to learn who is behind it. In the process, they learn of a centuries-old tradition in the government that began with the donations of the books and papers from the world’s greatest escape artist, and exposer of scams: Harry Houdini.

There were several things of interest to me included in the narrative:

  • Many local hacking conventions are organized or backed by our government to (1) find good prospects for national intelligence and, (2) identify potential criminal hackers;
  • the flag-draped caskets in which our fallen heroes are returned to the U.S. are actually containers called “transfer cases” filled with ice to preserve the bodies, and weigh approximately 400 pounds;
  • bodies do not reach the military morticians until identity has been confirmed by DNA, fingerprints, and dental records;
  • if a family adopts a child, then tries to return the child to the adoption agency, that family is labeled unfit, and is required to pay child support to the state until the child is 18;
  • Harry Houdini left his books and papers to the Library of Congress;
  • John Elbert Wilke, a friend of Houdini, was once in charge of the U.S. Secret Service.

What made The Grumpy Book Reviewer grumpy?

  • Using the phrase “begs the question” instead of “raises the question” — they are not interchangeable;
  • using the word “brought” instead of the more appropriate “took”;
  • using “didn’t” when “hadn’t” should have been used;
  • too many sentences began with conjunctions.

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