By Oline H. Cogdill
Sun Sentinel Correspondent
Feb 28, 2022 6:05 PM
‘The Lightning Rod’ by Brad Meltzer. Morrow, 432 pages, $28.99
Brad Meltzer’s dual roles as a historian and a novelist are so completely entwined that his method of scaffolding fact onto fiction delivers a seamless story of living history. Meltzer’s meticulous research ferrets out those obscure facts into plots that are as exciting as they are believable.
So believe it when Meltzer writes about the Army’s Artist-in-Residence, a program that dates to WWI in which an actual painter has been on staff to document battles and disasters; these illustrations have captured details often overlooked.
In “The Lightning Rod,” the little-known fact is “Grandma’s Pantry,” the nickname for a series of undisclosed military facilities across the country that date to the Cold War. From this, Meltzer builds a rip-roaring, energetic thriller that begins on a high note and only accelerates.
Meltzer’s affinity at melding plot and character shines in “The Lightning Rod,” which brings back mortician Jim “Zig” Zigarowski and Nola Brown, the Army’s former artist-in-residence with unassailable fighting skills — characters introduced in 2018′s “The Escape Artist.”
Two years ago, Zig left his position at Dover Air Force Base where he prepared for burial those “fallen soldiers” who had been involved in the government’s most high-profile and top-secret cases. “Too much pain — too many old scars torn open from spending every day with dead young soldiers,” he says. Now in private practice in Pennsylvania, Zig is asked by a Dover colleague to prepare Lt. Col. Archie Mint, who was killed in a home-invasion robbery. But Zig immediately becomes wary when too many suspicious situations occur at the funeral, especially when he spots Nola, who he hasn’t seen in a couple of years.
The high-octane plot quickly kicks in as Zig and Nola maneuver a labyrinth of government secrets, family bonds and a pair of killers known as “the Reds.”
The reuniting of Zig and Nola is most welcomed as Meltzer sculpts each as a fully realized character. The emotional yet grounded Zig treats each fallen soldier with respect and care, mindful of their service and loss and that of their friends and families. He will forever mourn the death of his teenage daughter, who was once saved by Nola, to whom his gratitude is limitless.
Nola is the antitheses of Zig — emotionless, with an “exquisite rage,” used to being alone. She pours her feelings into her drawings, which help her focus and see things she might have missed. One character calls Nola “a lightning rod” who attracts bad things.
Meltzer’s attention to detail brings a sense of authenticity to “The Lightning Rod,” facts he has gleaned from interviews with high-level government sources, including U.S. presidents, though no top level secrets are disclosed.
“The Lightning Rod” marks Meltzer’s 25th year as a published author, including 13 thrillers, two nonfiction books and a series of children’s books based on the childhoods of famous people. He’s also been the host of two History Channel series.
Meltzer, who lives in Broward County, strikes gold again with “The Lightning Rod.”
Brad Meltzer will discuss “The Lightning Rod” in person at 7:30 p.m. March 12 at Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, 305-442-4408; store requires masks; and in person at 2 p.m. March 13 at Barnes & Nobles at University Commons Shopping Center, 1400 Glades Road, Boca Raton, 561-750-2134; store requires masks and proof of vaccination.