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Literary Glance: The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

March 19, 2018

You might have heard about The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer even if you’ve never heard of The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer.

Over the weekend a headline from a New York Times book review ( Is Your Plane About to Crash?  Write a Farewell Note and Eat It ) made a bunch of news aggregators.  It’s kind of a morbid headline, and hopefully nobody will need the information, but the headline was a bit misleading because the article was more about current bestsellers and author profiles (including Brad Meltzer) than the note-eating itself.

Typical New York Times misleading headline clickbait tactic.

Anyway, that little note-eating tidbit/factoid is mentioned in an early scene from The Escape Artist, and it’s gotten a lot of publicity.  Even without that fun fact, The Escape Artist has a heckuva good start.  I won’t go into the details because a certain New York Times book reviewer might have revealed too much already, but if you like suspense/mystery thrillers, this could be a good one.

As good as the opening chapters are (you know I’m going to complain about something), there is some distracting exposition dialogue.  Almost every author suffers from bad exposition dialogue.  It’s tough to avoid.  Authors have to get a lot of information to their readers quickly and want to do it in an interesting way.

In this scene, the protagonist Jim “Zig” Zigararowski, a U.S. military mortician(?), is prying information from an old FBI agent friend Waggs (who is probably going to get killed in the book soon… I’m just guessing, so it’s not really a spoiler).  This dialogue sets up the old friendship, but also clumsily gives background information to the reader:

‘Ziggy, I love you, but do you have any idea why, when the corpses come in, you’re the one who gets all the facial injuries?”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Don’t play modest.  If a soldier gets shot in the chest, they get assigned to any mortician.  But when someone takes three bullets to the face, why does that body always go to you?”

“Because I can sculpt.  I’m good with the clay.”

“It’s more than talent.  Last year, when that marine was hit by ISIS rocket fire, every mortician said it should be closed casket- that you should wrap him in gauze.  You were the only one stubborn enough to spend fourteen straight hours wiring together his shattered jaw, then smoothing it over with clay and makeup, just so you could give his parents far more ease than they ever should’ve expected at their son’s funeral.  But y’know what that makes you?”

“Someone who’s proud to serve his country?”

“I love my country too.  I’m talking about your job, Zig.  When you take these horrors-lost hands, lost faces, lost lips- you make them more palatable, y’know what that makes you?”  Before Zig could answer, Waggs blurted, “A master liar.  That’s what every mortician sells, Zig.  Lies.  You do it for the right reasons- you’re trying to help people through their hardest times.  But every day, to hide these horrors, you need to be a first-class liar.  And you’re far too good at it.”

Zig went to say something, but nothing came out.  Closing his eyes, he turned his back to the body.

All this information is most likely important to the reader, but that dialogue wasn’t very good.  I don’t think the author (or the editors) read it out loud.  It sounds clunky, and people don’t usually talk in long, clunky paragraphs.

If I had written this (and I’m just a blogger), I would have put the background information in Zig’s thoughts while Waggs was speaking to him.  Waggs would mention how the soldiers with the facial injuries go to him and that triggers Zig’s thoughts about the effort he puts into his work and what that makes him.  To me, it would have been more believable.

Don’t get me wrong.  The first couple chapters of The Escape Artist are still really good, borderline great!  I don’t know what the rest of the book is like, but I’m interested enough and the pacing is good enough to keep reading.

I have to tell you, though, if I’m on a plane and I see people starting to eat paper, I’m going to get really nervous.

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