Brad Meltzer is one of South Florida's most celebrated thriller writers. For more than two decades, the author of page turners such as The Tenth Justice, Identity Crisis, and The Millionaires has more than proven the width and breadth of his imagination. In his latest book, The Escape Artist, due out March 6, he draws from some of the least-known segments of America's military and turns them into a tale all their own.
Meltzer has written all manner of thrillers over the years he's spent as a New York Times best-selling author, but it wasn't until he accepted an invitation from the USO to entertain troops in the Middle East that he learned about Dover Air Force Base and the unique nature of the work that's done there.
"Truthfully, I had no idea what Dover was or that it existed," Meltzer says, "that there was this one place in Delaware that was the funeral home for our service members, for our secret agents, for our spies, for everyone doing things all around the world. And that, in Delaware of all places, [there] is this building that’s full of mysteries and secrets. So as a mystery writer, how could I not write about it?"
Dover, which was completed and opened in 1941, has long been among the most somberly important of America's military bases. It's where the nation's bravest and boldest are brought before they are laid to rest, from soldiers whose bodies were returned from Vietnam to astronauts whose remains were collected in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster.
For those who are stationed there, the work they do is of paramount importance — not simply because they're following orders, but because that work carries a significance that goes beyond life and death. Most people who die in ways that leave their bodies maimed or destroyed wind up with closed-casket funerals. But at Dover, according to Meltzer, that’s not the way it goes.
"The people at Dover, some of them are artists, truly artists," he says. "They sculpt and reshape faces, and they reconstruct hands for mothers who want to hold their son’s hand one last time. Some of them will take 14 hours doing these rebuilds, and they won’t even take overtime because they just feel like that’s the mission. Either you have heart or you have no heart, and the people there have heart."
The time the author spent at Dover Air Force Base, and the inspiration he drew from the people stationed there, led Meltzer to create Zigg, one of the main characters in his newest novel. And just as his male protagonist came from one of the lesser-known facets of the U.S. military, so did Nola, the novel's heroine.
The idea for the character was born while Meltzer was working on his TV show, Lost History, and searching for the flag that was raised by firefighters at the World Trade Center in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The production was filmed outside Washington, D.C., on a military base that, it just so happened, had a museum.
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"In this Army museum, they have Adolf Hitler’s paintings; they have paintings by all these members of the military," Meltzer says. "And I’m like, ‘Why does the U.S. military have an amazing art collection? Why is this here?’ And they took me to this room in back to the office of the artist in residence."
The military's artist in residence is arguably one of the single most unusual positions in the U.S. Armed Forces — because it is perhaps the least militaristic.
"Since World War I," Meltzer says, "we’ve had someone in the military who is an actual painter who, while everybody else is running into situations with guns, is running in with nothing but colored pencils in her pocket. And I thought, That’s the craziest person I ever heard of."
Brad Meltzer. 7 to 9 p.m. Saturday, March 10, at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; booksandbooks.com. General admission is free; tickets cost $28 plus fees via eventbrite.com and include one copy of The Escape Artist and admission for two guests to Meltzer's talk and signing.