Friday, 22 August 2008

DEAD ON ARRIVAL IN WASHINGTON: Mike Lawson's latest Joe DeMarco

Dead On Arrival
Mike Lawson
Harper £6.99 ISBN 9780007256297

When I reviewed Lawson's first Joe DeMarco novel, The Inside Ring, (in Crime Time 48 you can find it here) , I was impressed by the way he wrung maximum tension from the corridors of Washington, within the context of a book that was undoubtedly 'high-concept', involving an assassination attempt against the President. In fact, once the story left the capital beltway and moved to Florida, it became a rather more standard sort of suspense novel. I was particularly taken with DeMarco's own diffidence, which seemed strangely effective among Washington's reptilian population. Dead On Arrival is a similar book, in that it also begins with a high concept: a rash of domestic suicide bombings in the US, which prompts a rush to pass a law requiring background checks on all Moslems in America.

It's harder to sustain this high concept, however. First because it is so obviously bogus; Lawson is extrapolating from the Bush regime's insistence on a steady erosion of civil liberties, and a constant hammering away at their audience's fears, and the real source of this convenient outbreak of terrorism patently isn't Islamic terrorists. Actually, even as I write this, I think that to many readers in America, the situation will not be 'obviously' bogus; if you are one of those people operating on full xenophobic alert, the suspense in this book will be riveting. It's also a stretch to accept that one of the suicide bombers should be a childhood friend of DeMarco's boss, the Speaker of the House, and that no one in the world (including intelligence people who presumably did background checks before picking their suicide bombers) knew this.

The other problem is that DeMarco's diffidence has intensified (if diffidence can be said to do that) to the point where he has become a shadow of a character. The political fixer should not be flamboyant, think of Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key, or any number of characters in George V Higgins' books, but he cannot be a reflecting surface on which other characters act, that's the kind of figure who's central in big historical novels by Herman Wouk. DeMarco has his dea-ex-machina in Emma, the former intelligence agent who acts as his action-man and plot-mover when he needs things done, but we'd still like to see the limits of his character: the relation with Speaker Mahoney needs more bite, and DeMarco himself needs to be less of a spectre.

Having said all that, Dead On Arrival (NB: called House Rules in the US) moves with a fast pace and brings everything to a conclusion neatly. But if Lawson can fine-tune get his blend of high-concept action and political novel into finer balance, he could produce a more memorable thriller.

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