- - Sunday, March 4, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

HOUSE WITNESS: A JOE DEMARCO THRILLER

By Mike Lawson

Atlantic Monthly Press, $26, 368 pages

There is no doubt about the importance of the testimony of an eyewitness in a murder trial and that is the theme of this slick and cleverly plotted mystery.

The point made by Mike Lawson, an excellent writer who knows his political chops, is that the key aspect of a case may be potential interference with what the witness remembers, or what he or she thinks they remember.



Persuading a witness to lie for profit is the career of Bill Cantrell and Ella Fields, a couple who clean up millions by using threats, money and the vulnerability of the very rich to change what a witness saw or did not see or is not quite sure what he saw.

However in such cases the two con artists must be dealing with the very rich, who can afford multi-million dollar payments to save their loved ones from jail or the death penalty.

In this case, the killer is a drunken and spoiled kid who shoots a man in a bar whom he doesn’t even know, simply because he has offended him. What he does not know is that the victim is the illegitimate son of John Maloney, the minority leader of the House of Representatives and he is the secret kept from Mrs. Maloney for many years although his identity is known to his father.

The victim’s mother, who explodes in rage and vengeance demanding that the young murderer, Toby Rosenthal, should suffer the ultimate penalty threatens that if not she will take her ultimate revenge on the minority leader.

This, oddly enough, is where the plot evolves into the account of Cantrell and Ella, who are already making a more than health living making liars out of witnesses. In this case there are five witnesses in the bar where the senseless shooting took place and they have to be persuaded they are not quite certain that Rosenthal is the killer. Fortunately, Rosenthal’s father is extremely wealthy and he wants to save his son despite his grim personal feeling that he had sired an idiot with an alcohol problem.

It has to be noted that the conniving couple earn their money in some cases, and they have to be able to convince witnesses that they are not lying in order make their ploy successful. Mr. Lawson vividly characterizes the pair of profiteers, and does an especially excellent job with Ella, an intelligent and stunningly glamorous woman who is determined to escape her own sordid beginnings in life and find a man rich enough to give her the kind of luxurious lifestyle she is determined to have.

Cantrell is a charming scoundrel, but lacking in the toughness of Ella — although they are a genuinely devoted couple as long as they can live as they want to in the style of the ultra-wealthy. They lead rollicking lives on the million dollar proceeds of what people think they remembered or even people who suddenly disappear. Sudden death is not ruled out of their picture if it becomes necessary to profit from a suddenly absent witness or even a suddenly dead witness. Ella proves adroit at investigating the lives of witnesses and just how much pressure she can put on them.

Meantime, they are unaware that political fixer Joe DeMarco is on their trail, working for the minority leader and prepared to do anything that is required by his boss. DeMaro is good at his job, but even he comes to realize that Cantrell and Ella are a problem, even when Ella is bereft of her beloved Bill and has to lead her criminal life alone. She has never given up her determination to live well, and there is nothing she won’t do to achieve it.

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever and it is fascinating to read how the shrewd DeMarco tracks down his prey while they scramble to keep their anonymity. But even the wily Ella must deal with seeing her witnesses trickling away from her wiles as she realizes that an indefatigable prosecutor in New York can outlast her. As can DeMarco.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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