“The Escape Artist” (Grand Central), by Brad Meltzer

A plane crash unveils a vast covert government operation with ties to master escape artist Harry Houdini in “The Escape Artist,” Brad Meltzer’s latest thriller.

Nola Brown is the army’s artist-in-residence. Her main task is to paint or draw military operations. She has a knack for seeing elements of the area that others easily miss, and her unique talent has saved countless lives. Her soldier training and artistic talent turns war into art. After taking an assignment in Alaska, the flight that she’s booked on for her return trip crashes, killing everyone onboard, including a high-ranking government official.

Jim “Zig” Zigarowski works out of Dover Air Force Base, and his skills as a mortician help lay to rest the bodies of soldiers who die on top-secret missions. The remains of the Alaska crash are brought to the base, and Zig realizes he knows Nola because she had saved his daughter’s life years earlier. He wants to give Nola extra care, and when her body arrives, he quickly realizes that it’s not her. Who is the woman in the casket?

As Zig begins to ask questions, he discovers that others on the flight are also not whom they appear to be, and that asking for the truth will put a target on his back. He’s compelled to find Nola and help her, but she’s hiding for a reason, and she’s too stubborn to ask for assistance.

She’s stumbled on a military secret that traces back to Harry Houdini, and both Nola and Zig will have to become escape artists themselves if they are going to survive.

Meltzer weaves a stellar tale of history, government-insider knowledge, and thrills to deliver his best book in years. At times the violence is intense — and the villains are borderline comic book — but Meltzer’s steady hand knows how to balance a fine line between compelling and discomforting. Since Zig and Nola are both artists in their own unique way, the visuals and narrative are even more intense than one would expect in a thriller.

“The Escape Artist” is the rare novel that one wants to read fast while also needing to go slow to savor every word.



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Jeff Ayers
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