Like any mystery, the inspiration for The Escape Artist came to Brad Meltzer as disconnected fragments that took a while to fit together.
First, he learned about one of the strangest jobs in the U.S. military: the Army’s so-called artist-in-residence, literal painters who for the past century have been dispatched into the aftermath of conflicts to create images that explore the emotions of battle.
Then Meltzer, the author of thrillers such as The Tenth Justice and The President’s Shadow (and host of the History channel’s Decoded) learned that in 1898 the man appointed to be head of the U.S. Secret Service was a friend of Harry Houdini’s named John Elbert Wilkie, who borrowed some techniques from the famed magician to enhance the department’s surveillance techniques.
Finally, the author found himself drawn to a haunting setting: Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where the bodies of fallen soldiers, covert CIA operatives, and others who give their lives overseas on behalf of the United States are returned home and prepared for burial.
Those three things clicked together in his imagination to inspire The Escape Artist, which is new in stores this week. Fellow thriller scribe Harlen Coben praised it by saying, “Meltzer is a master and this is his best. Not since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have you seen a character like this.”
Nola Brown was an artist-in-residence with the Army who died under mysterious circumstances. Or maybe not.
Jim “Zig” Zigarowski is a mortician who handles the bodies of the fallen at Dover and finds himself preparing the remains of this young woman, who was once friends with his late daughter.
He discovers the body he has been given is not really her and begins researching her demise, only to learn that she was associated with a group of people who all have the same names as associates of Harry Houdini from more than a century ago.
Then it’s a question of where is she? And what is she trying to escape?
Entertainment Weekly: There are a number of places we could begin here. There’s the research, there’s the setting, the history. Let’s start with the characters. It seems like the lead is Zig.
Brad Meltzer: Yeah, there are two leads here. There’s Zig, whose inspiration I found when I was on a USO tour entertaining our troops in the Middle East. I learned about the inner workings of Dover Air Force Base, where they bring fallen soldiers. But it also handles the biggest cases in the military. When the space shuttle goes down, the bodies go to Dover. When 9/11 happened, the Pentagon victims went to Dover. But what was interesting to me more than anything was that it’s also where our top spies that are supposed to be hidden around the world, their bodies go there too. And that means that Dover is a place full of secrets.
Someone like Zig, his job is to put the bodies to rest, but what does that mean? Is he sort of like a mortician at the Air Base?
That’s exactly what he does. He’s a mortician. And the thing is if you get disfigured, in a regular funeral home they close the casket and they bury you. But at Dover, the families often don’t believe what happened to their child until they really get to see them. And it’s heartbreaking, but it’s also inspiring. The Dover people will spend 14 hours rebuilding the cheekbones in someone’s face so that a family can see their son one last time and give him a kiss. They’ll rebuild their hands because a mother specifically says, “I wanna hold my son’s hand one last time.” We’re a country starving for heroes right now. And I realize these were real heroes, working on the best of the best and giving them peace.
And he’s somebody who works in secret, too. Death is something we don’t talk about.
You’re right. Zig is heartbroken. Zig is lost. Zig is divorced. And Zig has had the greatest loss in his life. But when we’ve been through a great tragedy, we’re trying to come back to life. That’s what Zig’s trying to do in this book.
That brings us to the other major character you have, Nola Brown. And she’s also the mystery of this story. Apparently, she has died.
Nola is a staff sergeant in the Army and the government says she’s dead. But when Zig is laying her body to rest, he finds a hidden note inside Nola’s body. And the note says, “Nola, you were right. Keep running.” And he realizes right there, Nola’s not dead. She’s alive and she’s on the run. And she’s fighting back like no one has ever fought back. And he has to figure out what’s going on. She’s the escape artist.
And she’s literally an artist, the Army’s artist-in-residence. This is not a job that I knew even existed.
Since World War I, the U.S. Army has had an actual painter on staff who documents disasters. So whether it’s storming the beaches of Normandy or Vietnam or 9/11, while everyone else is running in with their guns, there’s one person who’s running in with nothing but paint brushes in their pockets. And I said, “That’s the craziest person I’ve ever heard. I wanna meet him.” And my male bias got the best of me because they quickly said to me, “You mean her. You want to meet her.” And I was like, “Yes, I want to meet her.”
What is the purpose of it? What can the Army learn from a painting that they can’t learn from photos of the aftermath?
I learned while working in comics that artists see the world in a very different way. They see things that we don’t see. We have photographers, we have videographers. They’re there. What a photo can do is capture a single moment in time, but what a painter can do is they can tell a story. They can make a knapsack bigger, they can widen the pupils in your eyes and show exhaustion. They can tell a full, complete story of what they’ve seen and witnessed over many things.
So the artist tries to capture something abstract about the experience of battle? The emotion? An interpretation?
In the midst of all this murder and the midst of all this fighting in the military, in the midst of all this violence, we are actually trying to learn. We put a painter there because we’re trying to document and learn because there’s no other logical reason to have one there. And I love that the military in the midst of all this is trying to learn. There’s something to be gained from seeing what we’ve been through.
So Nola is apparently dead, but Zig finds out she’s not. And then, without getting too far into the story, he goes rogue to try and figure out where she is?
When I went to Dover, they explained to me that if a body comes in from your hometown, or maybe has your same last name, you grab that body. You want to work on that body. You just want to be the one to give it a little extra respect, a little extra attention.What happens to Zig is, when the body comes through, he knows Nola. Nola was a young girl in Girl Scouts with his own daughter. And we find out that Nola actually saved his daughter’s life. Thanks to Nola, his daughter got an extra year of life, so it’s a very, very personal case for him.
And saving her becomes personal, too.
He thinks he needs to help. To me, the fun part is of course that Nola needs no one’s help and Nola needs no one to save her. Nola is just fine and just strong enough herself.
You’ve always been interested in history and lore, going back years to find secrets that have remained hidden. How does Harry Houdini fit into this contemporary story of an Army artist on the run?
This is a real fact and this is the opening page of the book. In 1898, a man named John Elbert Wilkie was in charge of the U.S. Secret Service. He was a magician. He liked to do his own magic tricks. He was also a friend of Harry Houdini. It is the only time in history that a magician was in control of the Secret Service, and I love that detail. I couldn’t shake that detail. I’ve carried that in my head for the better part of a decade, saying, “Where am I gonna use it?”
How does it fit into this story?
I realized the one thing that Zig and Nola had in common was the same thing Harry Houdini had in common with them, which is that they were all obsessed with coming back from the dead. He was so obsessed with coming back from the dead that he gave all of his close associates and family and friends secret code words that if they ever came back from the dead and they were at a séance, they would have a word that only the two of them would know, so he would know it was real and not just some fakery.
But what’s the connection between Wilkie and Harry Houdini and this story?
Nola was one of the victims on the plane, but there are three others that are on the plane. They have the names of assistants for Harry Houdini, and they all died a hundred years ago. Harry Houdini had his own Secret Service. He had his own private group that used to go into a town and they would see what kind of handcuffs the cops used, what kind of blocks were on the prison cells.
He gathered his own intelligence!
He had his own Secret Service doing the legwork in advance. And I love that idea. And I just kept thinking of that idea of you’ve got a magician in charge of the Secret Service, he clearly taught him something. What if those methods are still being used today?