Brad Meltzer

(Jump down to read a review of The Zero Game)
(Jump down to read a review of The Millionaires)

"The Book of Fate"

(reviewed by Chuck Barksdale NOV 16, 2006)

I again touched my cheek.  My fingertips scraped against something sharp.  Like metal—or… is that bone? My stomach nose-dived, swirled with nausea. I touched my face again with a slight push.  That thing wouldn’t budge…What’s wrong with my fa--?

Two more flashbulbs blinded me with white, and the world flew at me in fast-forward. Time caught up in a fingersnap, blurring at lightspeed.

 “I’m not feeling a pulse!” a deep voice yelled in the distance.  Directly ahead, two suit-and-tie Secret Service agents lifted Boyle onto a stretcher and into the ambulance from the motorcade.  His right hand dangled downward, bleeding from his palm. I replayed the moments before the limo ride. He would’ve never been in here if I hadn’t… "

The Book of Fate by Brad MeltzerBrad Meltzer’s sixth novel, The Book of Fate, is finally out after over two years of waiting. I enjoyed his previous book and was looking forward to another thrilling quick-read and I was not disappointed. Despite being slightly over 500 pages, the interesting, well developed characters, the twists and turns and the great dialogue created a can’t-put-it-down book that felt like 200 pages.

The book begins with young Presidential aide Wes Holloway being injured by a ricocheting bullet during an attempted assignation of President Leland Manning.  Manning was attending a re-election appearance at a NASCAR race event at the Daytona Speedway.  Another bullet kills the President’s deputy chief of staff and long term friend Ron Boyle. This disfiguring injury to Wes leaves not only an external facial scar but an internal scar that inhibits his self confidence, especially since he feels guilty as the person who allowed Ron Boyle to join the President’s limousine just prior to the shooting. 

Most of the rest of the book takes place eight years after the shooting--one that not only impacted Wes--but the President’s “cowardly lion” reaction to the shooting leads to a loss in the presidential election. Wes, limited now by his facial scar, remains as an aide to the former President and his wife.  Meltzer’s first of many twists begins when Wes stumbles upon a man that appears to be Ron Boyle while traveling with the President in Malaysia.  Finding Boyle potentially alive confuses Holloway but also gives him ambition to figure out what really happened, especially since his guilt over Boyle’s death may be misplaced.  Holloway, with the help of his friends (or are they his friends?) tries to uncover clues to find out if Boyle could still be alive and, if so, why he would be in hiding all this time.  Wes finds resistance in many different places as members of FBI and the Secret Service are definitely interested in both helping and thwarting his attempts.  Meltzer adds many complex puzzles, and interesting twists as Wes tries to uncover and find out many secrets along the way in this fast paced book.

This book is told both in the first person voice of Wes Holloway and when Wes is not present, in the third person perspective of several other characters.  This did not bother me and allowed for both the first person perspective that I often enjoy in a book along with learning more about the other characters from a perspective that would not be available if the story remained always in Wes’ eyes.

Although I really enjoyed this book, I did at times feel that Meltzer was unnecessarily trying to bring in historical twists à la The Da Vinci Code. Certainly including references to Thomas Jefferson and the Freemasons and how they influenced Washington D.C. adds some interesting background to the story, but in the end the book is good enough without it (whereas I think this approach is what makes The Da Vinci Code a better book).

This is just the second book of Meltzer’s that I have read and I will definitely read more as his books are enjoyable and easy to read (which for me means not too bogged down with unnecessary detail – which admittedly some readers prefer).  His main characters are generally believable and interesting.  However, I’m not yet sold enough on his writing to go back and get the first four books he’s written, something I’ve done with writers such as Robert Crais for example, but if the next one is as good as The Book of Fate, I will.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 146 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Book of Fate at author's website

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"The Zero Game"

(reviewed by Chuck Barksdale MAY 15, 2004)

In the beginning, they always kept it to small stuff: hidden phrases in op-ed, an acronym in a commencement speech. Then it got bigger. A few years ago, on the Senate Floor, a Senator who was searching for his handkerchief reached into his jacket pocket and proceeded to wipe his forehead with a pair of women’s silk panties. He quickly laughed it off as an honest mistake made by his laundry service. But it wasn’t an accident.

That was the first time the game broke the envelope—and what caused the organizers to create the current rules. These days, it’s simple: The bills we bet on are ones where the outcome’s clearly decided. A few months back, the Clean Diamond Act passed by a vote of 408 to 6; last week, the Hurricane Shelters Act passed by 401 to 10; and today, the Baseball for America Act was expected to pass by approximately 300 to 100. A clear landside. And the perfect bill to play on.

The Zero Game by Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer’s fifth book, The Zero Game, is another thriller based in Washington D.C. Two senior congressional staffers, Mathew Mercer and Harris Sandler, friends from college, somewhat bored with the routine of their jobs, decide to join in the Zero Game. In the Zero Game, people bet o n the outcome of adding minor riders to congressional bills. When Matthew sees a bet proposal come through on a bill he knows he can change, related to a land deal for Wendell Mining, he makes a significant bet. When he gets suspicious about the page that comes to pick up his the money for the bet, troubles begin for Matthew and Harris.

Since this book has been out for a few months, I’ll provide a minor spoiler and mention that different than what is confusingly included on the book jacket, Matthew Mercer, the first-person “star” of the first 70 pages or so, is killed while chasing the nervous and fake page that picks up the bet. Since the book lasts almost another 400 pages, I’m not sure why the publisher and author felt it necessary to confuse the reader on the book jacket, but I guess they wanted the reader to be surprised that the initial main character does not survive.

At first, Harris turns to his other friends to help him figure out what went wrong and why Matthew was killed. He quickly finds more trouble when another one of his friends is also killed and his remaining friends fail to help him. Not really knowing who to turn to, Harris is forced to trust Viv Parker, a 17-year-old Senate page who had met Harris briefly during her new-hire orientation. As Harris and Viv try to gather information, they run into Martin Janos, an evil killer who attacks both Harris and Viv before they are able to escape. Harris and Viv travel throughout Washington before deciding to investigate the mysterious Wendell Mining Company that started all the troubles. Janos is not far behind them as they travel to and descend down the mine to find the real reason everyone is so interested in this old abandoned mine.

I believe the best thrillers need to keep the reader so interested in what happens next that the reader does not pick up on the various incredible and unbelievable things that are occurring. Meltzer is definitely successful in this book, as I quickly read the book and generally paid no attention to the mostly unlikely and unbelievable reactions and escapes of Harris Sandler and Viv Parker. I’m not really being critical; most thrillers have these characteristics which is why I don’t read them much any more. Meltzer, however, is successful in making the story as believable as he needs to keep the reader distracted by the “fun” and exciting events.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 107 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Zero Game at the author's website

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"The Millionaires"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JAN 09, 2002)

The Millionaires  by Brad MeltzerSo what would you do in this case?

Say, you work in a private bank one that caters only to the very rich. One of your responsibilities is to manage the abandoned accounts list. After five years, inactive accounts are required to be turned over to the Federal government. But because the bank doesn't want the money to leave, your job is to make an effort to locate the owner or a relative during the six months prior to this happening. One of these accounts belongs to a Martin Duckworth and the Friday before the account is to be turned over to the Feds, you receive a fax from Duckworth requesting his money be redirected to another bank. But as you are reading this fax, and thinking nothing unusual about it, your brother notices that it is was faxed from the Kinkos across the street.

Furthermore, a quick check to the Social Security office proves that Martin Duckworth has been dead for six months. So you and your brother put two and two together and realize that someone at the bank is going to redirect this tidy sum of $3 million dollars to their own account. So why can't that be the two of you?

Well for one, maybe you already think you are on the right career path and your boss, Mr. Henry Lapidus, is doing everything he can to help you climb the corporate ladder. After all, he also "didn't grow up with a money clip in his pocket. But the right job, with the right boss, led him to the right business school." Now he's returning the favor and helping you out. In fact, so far you feel you are doing pretty well since you are the youngest associate and the only one assigned directly to a partner in a place with twelve partners. That alone says something about you and where you're going. So the money will come if you just put in the time.

But how much time is enough? It's already been four years. When is a business school going to accept your application? Or maybe, your brother Charlie is right. Maybe Lapidus isn't really talking you up like he says he is...

And you and Charlie know that you really could use this money to help out your mother. She's got a hospital bill she's trying to pay off that is well over $80,000 and climbing. This is not your usual rent or utility bill problem. This is only going to go away with some serious money.

And if anyone knows how to pull off this caper, it's you. You've been trained for a moment just like this. It's foolproof. And that's why you know it's an inside job. You don't know who it is, maybe it's your own boss, but, you're looking at your brother and you have to ask yourself, why should someone else get this money? And as Charlie says, maybe the bank is jerking him around...

So what would you do? Maybe the exact same thing as Oliver Caruso and with the help of his little brother Charlie. Take the money.

O.K., as you can guess, despite how foolproof this plan seems, Oliver and Charlie are in for a huge surprise and a world of trouble and do not simply live "happily ever after" as planned. In fact, it seems that they might not live at all. But, mum's the word on the rest of the plot. This is one of those books that you open up and you can't stop reading because the dialogue carries you along and the plot keeps twisting and there's never really the right time to set the book down. And yes, you might get to the end and wonder why you were in such a hurry. But there you have it; you had to get to the end.

What really works in this novel is how Meltzer portrays the relationship between these two brothers. From the start you get a sense of how different they are from each other, but nonetheless close. Oliver (the narrator) although good hearted, is a little full of himself and the station he wants in life. He's trying too hard and Charlie's the first to call him on it. Between the two, Charlie is the more affable one. Oliver might have the position in the bank, but Charlie's the one who knows people. And like close siblings, they push each other's button constantly, sometimes reducing the conversation to juvenile behavior. Even though, Oliver is narrating, it's clear when he's irritating Charlie. The other thing that Meltzer cleverly does with the brothers when he has them second-guess each other, which happens in any long term relationship. ("Don't Charlie me! You didn't know him, Ollie -- that was his life!") But, even when one brother tries to talk sense into the other brother, there are lifelong patterns at work and it's near impossible to convince the other. Accept when it's crunch time. Then they fall into their age-old habits and make them work to their advantage, their communications becoming almost telepathic.

The play between the two brothers is especially clever because it increases the tension in the plot. Meltzer is right in choosing Oliver to narrate since he has the type of personality that is less questioning and thus more easily led. In fact, much of the plot revolves around the narrator's weakness. If it were Charlie narrating, well you would have to believe that it would be a whole other story. Remember Charlie is the one who knows people. Well, most people.

Of course this whole novel does not revolve around just Oliver's point of view. The Secret Service guys are pretty busy tracking the Caruso brothers down and a woman called Joey, who's a Private Eye/Attorney with her own high tech toys, is tracking down the Secret Service guys as well as the brothers. All in all it makes for quite a bit of action. And this action spans from New York City down to Florida, culminating in a most unusual visit to Disney World. I'm just bursting at the keyboard trying not to give away anything about this story. Let me just say that when Meltzer writes, he's got us by the eyeballs.

The Millionaires is the best kind of entertainment. The moral to the story is obvious; stealing large sums of money is wrong and can complicate one's life in the most unexpected way. Actually that's an understatement in this case. Meltzer's plot innovates grandly on this theme. Overall, we root for these brothers, because we like them and because we know that they are not too different from us. They are just looking for a little break in a world in which the working guy can't get ahead. Who knows, we too might take the chance if we thought we wouldn't be caught. Apparently, twenty-three percent of people say they would. Of course in this case, it really is better to just play it safe and live vicariously through fiction. As for me, I'll stick to the majority who wouldn't.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 135 reviews

Read an excerpt from The Millionaires at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Brad MeltzerBrad Meltzer was raised in Brooklyn and Miami. He graduated with honors from the University of Michigan and earned a degree from Columbia Law School in 1996. Brad's writing has appeared in USA Weekend, London's Sunday Times, and Details magazine, and has been translated into over a dozen languages, from Hebrew to Bulgarian. He has written speeches for President Clinton's national service program, devised marketing strategies for Games magazine, and played himself as an extra in Woody Allen's Celebrity.

He now lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Cori, who also an attorney. They never fight.

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