The business of publishing is an unpredictable one. Much like William Goldman’s famous maxim about Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything” – even the people who have toiled in the publishing trenches for a lifetime can’t claim to understand what will work and what won’t with anything much greater than Ouija Board-precision.
Witness the case of Mike Lawson. House Reckoning is his tenth novel – the ninth in the Joe DeMarco series – and he’s been writing top-notch thrillers ever since his first, The Inside Ring, debuted back in 2005. By all rights, he should be a fixture on the bestseller lists, if not a household name. Yet, mind-bogglingly, he’s not. Fortunately, you don’t have to be left out in the cold any longer. Lawson’s latest makes for an excellent introduction to his work and his series character.
House Reckoning dives into the backstory of Joe DeMarco. DeMarco is one of those Washington political operatives with a vague title and a powerful boss. He’s a fix-it man, and although his name might not appear on any org chart, he’s a powerful tool in the arsenal of his employer, Congressman John Mahoney, the minority leader and former Speaker of the House.
DeMarco usually has his hands full doing his boss’s dirty business, plugging leaks and greasing wheels in the best tradition of G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt. This time, though, he’s off on a personal mission: to find the man who murdered his father.
DeMarco has always known that his dad, Gino, was a mobster, and that Gino was murdered two decades ago. Joe may not have exactly made peace with that fact, but he’s learned to live with it. That ends when one of his father’s former associates, a Mafioso dying of cancer, contacts Joe with some shocking news. Not only does the man know who killed Gino – but the murderer now holds a position of power and influence in the government.
This revelation sends DeMarco on a mission of revenge. He’s not exactly sure what he’s going to do about it – how can he even reach a man who’s all but untouchable? – but there’s no way he can just let this slide. Gino DeMarco may have been a mobster and a hired killer, but he was also a good and loving father. So it’s up to Joe to make this right.
Lawson has a deceptively smooth, low-key style that is perfect for the stories he tells. There’s nothing fancy about his prose, but you’ll still find yourself smiling at the funny parts and your heart beating fast at the tense ones. Writer Wallace Stegner once wrote that “hard writing makes easy reading” and Lawson’s work exemplifies that.
Who knows why Lawson isn’t better known among readers. Maybe there isn’t much market for smart, witty, and entertaining thrillers that plumb the depths of the seedy world of Washington politics. But one thing is certain: Mike Lawson is the only writer I know who comes close to matching the stories of the great Ross Thomas, the finest thriller writer to ever roll a blank page into an Underwood. You shouldn’t need any more endorsement than that.
This review first appeared in Strand Magazine.