Author/attorney launches new series character in latest novel


A University of Michigan alum, Brad Meltzer earned his law degree from Columbia University.


by Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

New York Times best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer meticulously plans and plots his mystery-thriller novels.

“And then the characters come to life and tell me that they’re tearing apart my plans and doing their own thing,” said Meltzer, 47, of Florida.

This happened with his two new lead characters, Nola Brown and Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, in his latest novel The Escape Artist (Grand Central Publishing $28), which debuts March 6.

“And for me, it’s the very best part of writing,” said Meltzer, an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Columbia Law School.

The book opens at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where Zig, a mortician, must prepare the body of soldier Nola Brown, a young woman he knew as a child who once saved his daughter’s life. However, Zig realizes this dead woman is not Nola.

Launching his own investigation, Zig learns Nola is the U.S. Army’s artist-in-residence and a highly-trained special operative. Her job is to rush into battle, making art from war’s aftermath and sharing her unique observations about today’s wars that otherwise would be overlooked.

“When we were filming the very first episode of our TV show, Lost History, we were in the HQ of one of the most obscure jobs in the Army: the artist-in-residence. Since World War I, the Army has assigned one person – an actual artist – who they send out in the field to paint what couldn’t otherwise be seen,” explained Meltzer.

One of the greatest traditions in our military, these war artists as they’re called go, see, paint, and catalogue the battle-scene, the victories, and the mistakes, whether it’s the dead on D-Day, the injured at Mogadishu, or the sandbag pilers during Hurricane Katrina. In fact, when 9/11 occurred, the artist-in-residence was the only artist let inside the security perimeter.

“From there, Nola came to life in my head,” said Meltzer. “Imagine an artist/soldier whose real skill was finding the weakness in anything. The Escape Artist started right there.”

On her last mission, Nola sees something she wasn’t supposed to see, earning her enemies that go all the way up to the highest echelons of power in the U.S. government. They will do whatever it takes to keep her silent. Alongside Zig, Nola must uncover the Army’s most mysterious secret – a centuries-old conspiracy that traces back through history to the greatest escape artist of all time, Harry Houdini – or die trying.

Meltzer had unprecedented access to Dover while researching this book. “It’s a place I never thought the government would let me into,” confessed Meltzer. “For those who don’t know, Dover is home to the mortuary for the U.S. government’s most top-secret and high-profile cases. On 9/11, the victims of the Pentagon attack were brought there. So were the victims of the attack on the USS Cole, the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia, and the remains of (more than) 50,000 soldiers and CIA operatives who fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and every secret location in between. In Delaware of all places, at Dover Air Force Base, is America’s most important funeral home.”

He continued, “In the building, as you see in the book, they make sure our most honorable soldiers are shown the dignity and respect they deserve. In addition, the people there know details about hidden missions that almost no one in the world will ever hear about. Dover is a place full of mysteries, surprises, and more secrets than you can imagine. As someone who writes thrillers, it was the perfect setting for a mystery.”

According to Meltzer, Zig is named after a real person, but he’s also an amalgam of all the morticians he met at Dover.

“These are men and women who rebuild hands – rather than giving a fake prosthesis – so that a mother can hold her son’s hand one final time,” said Meltzer. “Or who spend 14 straight hours wiring together a fallen soldier’s shattered jaw, then smoothing it over with clay and makeup, just so they could give his parents far more ease than they ever should’ve expected at their son’s funeral. A few of them, like my fictional Zig, will never put in for overtime.”

Meltzer stated that Nola and Zig – and the broken parts of their souls – reflect his own worst moments and fears.

“Fortunately, their lives are far more devastating than mine. But their paths out of loneliness and sorrow are exactly the same: It’s the story at the center of every life. We all need to love and be loved. It’s the only way Zig and Nola will ever pull off the hardest magic trick of all: coming back to life after a tragedy,” he said.

Fellow attorney-turned-author James Grippando praised Meltzer’s work. “Brad Meltzer is a unique talent. His research skills are unsurpassed, and yet he has the gift of knowing just how much detail to weave into his stories and still keep the pages flying. He makes it look easy, but it’s what sets him apart in the genre,” said Grippando, whose latest novel A Death in Live Oak debuted last month.

In early 2018, I AM Harriet Tubman was released. This is the 14th installment of Meltzer’s best-selling “I AM” series of kid-friendly biographies of iconic historical figures. He’s spotlighted George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Amelia Earhart, and Gandhi, among others in these books.

This time around, he focuses his attention on Tubman, an abolitionist who was born into slavery. She escaped and subsequently conducted 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 fellow slaves, including members of her family, through the Underground Railroad. She was also an espionage agent for the U.S. Army during the Civil War.

“Beyond freeing so many other slaves, she was the first American woman ever to lead an armed raid into enemy territory during the Civil War. I loved that detail, along with so many others,” said Meltzer.

His impetus for starting the “I AM” series began as a way to help his three kids differentiate fame from heroism. He told his children that just because reality TV stars are famous, that doesn’t make them heroes.

“I wanted my kids to see real heroes [who are] real people no different than themselves… With I AM Harriet Tubman, I get to teach my daughter how to be strong and how to look out for others,” said Meltzer. “Today, too many politicians are looking out for just themselves. We need to set our kids right.”

Meltzer still cannot believe that the “I AM” would be as successful as it has been. Parents send him letters telling him that their daughters dressed up as Earhart for Halloween instead of one of the Disney princesses.

“I never ever anticipated how this series has grown. Someone just sent me photos of the book covers that someone had painted as street art. It’s so humbling,” he said. “I think the world is starving for heroes right now. Our politicians are shameful. We turn on the TV and want to teach our kids that there’s a difference between a politician and a leader. We need more leaders. That’s why parents and grandparents are buying the books: To give their kids and grandkids real heroes to look up to.”

His next “I AM” book is slated to come out in September. The subject is astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon.

Another upcoming project is DC Comics’ “Action Comics” No. 1,000, which will be released April 18. Meltzer contributed a story to Superman’s 80th anniversary. He is one of many writers and artists participating in this milestone.
“Superman stays because we’re all Clark Kent. We always have been. We’re all boring and ordinary and wish we could be better than ourselves,” he said. “Superman means something to people. He stands for something – something important that’s bigger than all of us: truth, justice, and the American way. It’s a great catchphrase, but it’s serious and it matters. And Superman matters. Now more than ever, America needs heroes.”