By Mike Lawson
Atlantic Monthly Press, $22.00, 384 pages
Reviewed by John Weisman
Writing a top-tier Washington thriller ain’t easy. Just think of the competition. Like Richard Condon’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” Or Allen Drury’s “Advise and Consent,” Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II’s “Seven Days in May” or Eugene Burdick and Harry Wheeler’s “Fail-Safe.”
I’m happy to report that Mike Lawson is up to the challenge. His latest Washington thriller, “House Secrets,” is plotted artfully, written with panache and has a surprise ending — don’t cheat and peek — that made me roar with laughter.
Mr. Lawson’s plot starts simply. The speaker of the House, a philandering, alcoholic, old-fashioned Boston Irish pol named John Fitzpatrick Mahoney, asks his chief factotum and troubleshooter — a GS-13 lawyer named Joe DeMarco who has never practiced law — to placate a retired congressman whose son recently died in a kayaking accident. The former congressman thinks his son may have been murdered.
” ‘Sounds like what he needs,’ Mahoney said, ‘is somebody to turn over a few rocks and see what crawls out.’ ” What crawls out makes up the body of the book. It’s not pretty — but it’s great reading.
At the plot’s epicenter is the junior senator from New York, one Paul Morelli. “DeMarco’s illusions had been mangled so often by politicians that he thought he should qualify for handicapped parking — but he had to admit that he was pretty impressed by Paul Morelli.”
Morelli is one of those perfect pols: a former prosecutor who put the bad guys in jail, the youngest man ever to become mayor of New York City, a senator with vision and charisma to spare and the all-but-anointed Democratic candidate in the upcoming presidential election. He’s handsome, too. Except. Except we know (because Mr. Lawson has let us listen in to a private phone conversation) that Morelli is dirty. Very dirty. Very, very dirty.
And because Joe DeMarco has a lot of friends in low places — friends such as a former Defense Intelligence Agency operative named Emma (we never learn her last name) and “an ‘information broker’ (which really meant he hacked and bugged and spied and then sold whatever he acquired to the highest bidder)” named Neil — Joe DeMarco is able to ask the sorts of tough questions that could have a negative impact on Morelli’s career.
The senator discovers DeMarco is asking tough questions. Soon thereafter, DeMarco finds himself shadowed by Carl and Jimmy, a pair of the most dimwitted yet lethal hit men since Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd graced Ian Fleming’s “Diamonds Are Forever.”
Soon after that, Morelli’s wife, Lydia, who had been a source of negative information about her husband, is shot and killed in a robbery attempt. And not so long after that, virtually everyone who could possibly derail Morelli’s presidential aspirations dies. Hit and run. Heart attack. Workplace accident. At this point, DeMarco gets a little jittery about his own safety. And with reason. People who cross swords with Morelli have a way of dying.
Mr. Lawson, whose bio states that he is “a former senior civilian executive for the U.S. Navy,” has a true insider’s insight about real-world spinelessness, venality and corruption that have taken the place of moral courage and true leadership on Capitol Hill these days. He also understands that in Washington, it’s not your friends, but a 24-karat Rolodex, a pocket full of political IOUs and a good veiled threat that get results when the chips are down. As Harry S. Truman has often been quoted — perhaps apocryphally — as saying: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
Mr. Lawson has a fine ear for dialogue. It’s also good that he makes Joe DeMarco a flesh-and-blood character whose foibles are Everyman’s and whose occasional bursts of puppylike innocence bring a wonderful, welcome political naivete to the book. His quirks are human: DeMarco is on a constant search for a cheap but good-tasting vodka. He bemoans — but never snivels over — his failed relationships.
He also understands that in the manipulation-rich environment that is Washington, it sometimes is necessary to link up with the devil because, as the old Middle East adage goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But DeMarco’s moral compass stays on true north. When the enemy of his enemy says “I owe you one,” DeMarco responds, “No … you will definitely not owe me one. If I had my way, you wouldn’t be running for president either.”
Mr. Lawson also has a good eye for irony. At one point, DeMarco is working one of his sources, a grizzled drunk of a Washington Post reporter named Reggie Harmon. He needs the reporter to obtain a copy of Morelli’s schedule. “The phone went silent for a long time. Reggie was either pondering DeMarco’s offer or he had slipped into an alcoholic coma. ‘Okay, Joe,’ he said, at last. ‘I’ll give it a shot.’
” ‘What you could do is pretend you’re writing a …”
” ‘DeMarco, I don’t need you to tell me how to get information. I’m an old drunk, not a young imbecile.’ ”
Mr. Lawson also puts in the mouth of CIA operative Charlie Eklund, one of his more amoral but eloquent characters, just about the best defense of the CIA I’ve come across recently. It takes the form of a eulogy during a funeral.
” ‘Blake Hanover,’ Charlie Eklund says, ‘was proud that he worked for the CIA, as I too am proud. A fickle and ignorant media reports only the failures of America’s greatest intelligence service. The successes are not reported because they cannot be reported. The people who work for the agency are patriots. They love this country and they die if need be to guarantee its freedoms They are diligent, deeply committed people who should be revered for what they do rather than scorned by a witless public and held in contempt by unappreciative politicians.’ ” Amen.
One hopes CIA Director Leon Panetta will transcribe those words and use them verbatim during his next session with the pompous, mendacious, corrupt poseurs who form the majority of the current House and Senate intelligence committees.
Finally, what makes “House Secrets” so delicious is that even though we know Sen. Morelli is a bad apple almost from the get-go, Mr. Lawson inserts enough twists and turns into this book to keep readers guessing how it all resolves right up until the incredibly funny last page. Trust me. Don’t cheat and peek.
John Weisman’s most recent novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are all available as Avon paperbacks.