Oline H Cogdill

I often joke that everything I know, I learned from mysteries.

Well, that’s partly true.

A lot of things I learn start in a mystery book, thanks to detailed research that really good authors conduct.

Yes, it’s fiction and that means the author made it up. But that’s the plot, character, dialogue. Most authors are meticulous about making sure certain elements of a novel are based in reality.

I was always good in history and it was one of my favorite subjects. But history—at least the way most students learn it—is just a bunch of numbers. What brings history to life are the people behind those numbers.

Take Brad Meltzer. When you read about something in a Meltzer novel, you can pretty much take it to the bank that he is writing about something that is real. With no embellishments. He saves those embellishments for his plots and characters.

We should expect no less than the truth from the author who is the host of Brad Meltzer’s Lost History, on H2, and Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, on the History Channel.

Meltzer also is also responsible for helping find the missing 9/11 flag that the firefighters raised at Ground Zero, making national news on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

And through the years, Meltzer has had unbelievable access to archives and several US presidents. I think that’s because Meltzer writes from the heart and respects history.

Meltzer’s latest novel, The Escape Artist, is chock with historical facts, and, yes, some seem hard to believe, but they are true. Such as:

In 1898, John Elbert Wilkie, appointed to be head of the US Secret Service, was a friend of magician Harry Houdini. Wilkie borrowed some of Houdini’s techniques to enhance the department’s surveillance techniques.

Dover Air Force Base in Delaware is where bodies of fallen soldiers, covert CIA operatives, and others who give their lives overseas on behalf of the United States are prepared for burial. The morticians here go to great lengths to prepare these heroes for burial and so families can, if ever possible, have an open casket.

But for me, the most astonishing fact—and most interesting—was the position of the Army’s artist-in-residence. Since World War I, the US Army has had an actual painter on staff who documents disasters. This person often sees, through the prism of being an artist, what others cannot. Even photographers haven’t captured aspects that the artist-in-residence has.

In the press materials for The Escape Artist, Meltzer states that these “war artists are one of our military’s greatest traditions and they have catalogued everything from the dead on D-Day, the injured at Mogadishu, and the sandbag pilers after Hurricane Katrina.”

He added, “After 9/11, they were the only artist allowed inside the security perimeter.”

During the recent Literary Feast panel of which I was the moderator, Meltzer was again telling this story, still amazed that while everyone else runs into battle, this artist only has paintbrushes.

“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’,” Meltzer said during our panel, which was sponsored by the Broward Public Library Foundation.

And in The Escape Artist, readers do indeed meet her.

Photo of Brad Meltzer by Michelle Watson.