The House of Secrets

  • By Brad Meltzer and Tod Goldberg
  • Grand Central Publishing
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Howard C. Davis
  • July 26, 2016

A frothy, fun spy thriller.

The House of Secrets

Brad Meltzer’s new novel, The House of Secrets, revolves around a highly fictionalized version of his own life. An industry as much as a writer, Meltzer churns out political thrillers, comic books, and children’s nonfiction. He hosts television shows that have investigated conspiracy theories, extraterrestrials, and vampires, and in his spare time, he helps Homeland Security brainstorm terrorist-attack scenarios.

Meltzer’s alter ego in the book is Jack Nash, world-renowned host and creator of the long-running “House of Secrets” television series, who travels the globe to delve into mysteries like those aired on Meltzer’s real-life “Decoded” and “Lost History” shows, which almost debunk strange stories but leave an eerie sliver of doubt.

Jack dies at the outset in a car crash that leaves his thirtysomething daughter, Hazel, injured and unable to remember exactly who she is. The rest of the novel revolves around Hazel’s efforts, with the help of older brother Skip, to discover her father’s past and recover her own.

Hazel remembers that she is a respected anthropology professor in Southern California, though upon Googling herself, she finds she enjoyed bar brawls, among other things, which sometimes landed her in jail. But with her brain circuitry somewhat scrambled from the car crash, she can’t connect emotionally with the violent, unlikeable person she once was. Her doctor, a family friend, thinks it’s a blessing, since now she has a chance to become a better human being. But soon her top priority becomes to find out why the FBI thinks Jack’s death may not have been accidental.

FBI agent, Trevor Rabkin informs the siblings that while Jack had been openly filming TV episodes in places like Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Cuba, he had been doing something else in the shadows at the behest of the government. It seems, too, that he was chasing a lost Bible that once belonged to the traitor Benedict Arnold.

This Bible (McGuffin alert) may have contained coded messages or instructions from George Washington written after Arnold’s apparent defection to the British. Perhaps, Rabkin suggests, Arnold wasn’t really a traitor, but rather the ultimate triple agent, infiltrating the British and reporting back to Washington.

Nowadays, however, copies of the Bible keep turning up sewn into the chests of murder victims. More ominously, Jack had secretly visited one of them just days before the corpse was discovered. The FBI wonders if Jack killed him; with her memory impaired, Hazel can’t discount the possibility she herself killed one or both of them.

As Hazel digs deeper into the affair of the Arnold Bible and her father’s covert doings, she finds that more and more people — even the family doctor, even Agent Rabkin’s boss, even Skip — are players or pawns in a conspiracy that, like the one in Meltzer’s 2011 The Inner Circle, goes back decades. “Welcome to the family business,” Skip offers helpfully.

Naturally, the siblings discover they themselves are targeted for assassination. But they get help along the way from Agent Rabkin (spoiler alert: eligible bachelor) and other colorful characters, including a dodgy pilot-cum-gun-runner named Butchie who seems to have been Hazel’s only friend in her unsavory past. They even get help in the form of a “cameo” assist from Beecher White, the National Archives researcher who, as Meltzer fans will recall, was the improbably nerdy hero of The Inner Circle.

Meltzer and writing partner Tod Goldberg, author of the comic thriller Gangsterland about a hitman gone undercover as a rabbi, deploy all the tropes of the genre to make The House of Secrets a breathless page-turner. The chapters are short, flash alternately back and forward in time, and often end with a big reveal. The omniscient narrator shows us Hazel from the inside out, but when peering into the heads of others, especially bad guys, lets us see deeply enough to learn they adore pain au chocolat, but little else.

When the dust clears after a predictably violent climax, Hazel learns enough of the truth to provide a mostly satisfying denouement, but with more than enough loose ends to frustrate readers, or whet their appetite for sequels. Indeed, Hazel muses, with a wink at the reader, “There are a thousand mysteries left to be solved. Who was their mother? Was she even dead? What other damage did Hazel do?” Also, it must be said, we still don’t know Jack.

Despite several glaring implausibilities — Hazel’s career as a respectable (but street-fighting) college professor, for starters — and a few other character reveals that don’t play fair with the reader, The House of Secrets is a frothy, fun read.

Howard C. Davis is a former journalist and aficionado of spy stories. He and his wife live in Virginia with their Chinese Cresteds.

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