BOOK REVIEW: ‘House Odds’: Congressman’s Fixer Joe DeMarco Once Again Rises to the Challenges of His Unusual Job

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'House Odds': Congressman's Fixer Joe DeMarco Once Again Rises to the Challenges of His Unusual Job
In the latest thriller by Mike Lawson featuring Washington, DC fixer Joe DeMarco, “House Odds” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 351 pages, $24.00), we learn that — although he’s employed by Massachusetts Congressman (and former Speaker of the House) John Fitzgerald Mahoney, DeMarco doesn’t have an office in Mahoney’s elaborate suite.
On Page 77 we learn that DeMarco’s office is in the subbasement of the Capitol, adjacent to janitors’ rooms and the emergency Diesel generator for the building. His hideaway, really hidden, is not much bigger than a walk-in closet, but its door has a faded inscription: “Counsel Pro Tem for Liaison Affairs.” And DeMarco is an attorney, although his work is closer to that of his neighbors, the janitors, in that they both take out the garbage.

 This is my first Joe DeMarco thriller, but I wasn’t handicapped because Lawson treats each book as a standalone, providing all the background we need to understand what’s going on — most of the time, at least! (I’ve included material from Lawson’s website below for other DeMarco newbies).

In “House Odds,” the work becomes personal, when  Mahoney’s daughter, Molly, is arrested and charged with insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). (This has to be a first, given that very few people have been prosecuted by the current administration in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown). An engineer with a Reston Technologies — part of the Military-Industrial Complex and a high-flying technology firm — she allegedly placed a half-million dollar bet on one of the firm’s clients.

She’s in the gunsights of SEC investigator Kay Kiser (no relation to Kay KYSER, 1905-1985, the Swing Era bandleader and Dean of Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge; Kay KISER is a tall, attractive black woman).

DeMarco’s job — and this is no “Mission Impossible” task where he can decline to accept the task — is to clear Molly’s name and keep his boss clean. First question: how did Molly get her hands on so much money to invest in the first place? This is the part when the parents, all too often in a state of denial or ignorance, learn what’s really going on with their daughter.

And it’s also where  the chapters about the Atlantic Palace Casino in Atlantic City come in. These chapters alternate with the doings of DeMarco, Mahoney, Molly and Joe’s friend Emma, a retired DIA spy who has invaluable connections and is an obsessive lawn care devotee.  We learn a lot about casino operations and the inevitable links to the Mob, reminding me of the excellent (if shockingly brutal at times)  1995 Martin Scorsese-helmed film “Casino”, starring Robert DeNiro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci.

I won’t continue along these lines, other than to state that Joe DeMarco soon will be involved with the world of his late, mobbed-up father. Before long, DeMarco uncovers that there’s far more to Molly’s case than meets the eye, and the risk to Mahoney is more than just a little political embarrassment. Featuring an extensive cast of mobsters and politicians, “House Odds” is a gripping tale of high stakes scheming from one of today’s best political thriller writers.

I don’t know if all members of congress have a Joe DeMarco type on staff, but it sounds like a good idea. People who long for writing by the late great  Donald E. Westlake, as well as Lawrence Block, Carl Hiassen and other masters of the caper novel, will enjoy Lawson’s novel.
About the Author

A former senior civilian executive for the U.S. Navy, Mike Lawson is the author of seven previous novels starring Joe DeMarco: “The Inside Ring”, “The Second Perimeter”, “House Rules”, “House Secrets”, “House Justice”, “House Divided” and “House Blood”. He lives in Seattle.

From Lawson’s website:

I was raised in Pueblo, Colorado with a passel of brothers and one sister, then attended college at Seattle University and got a degree in engineering. After college, I went to work for the U.S. Navy as a nuclear engineer and spent about thirty years working for the Navy’s nuclear power program. I spent some time in Washington D.C., but most of my career was at a large naval shipyard in Bremerton Washington. At the shipyard I managed a number of different organizations related to overhauling nuclear powered submarines, cruisers, and aircraft carriers. I ended my career as a member of the government’s Senior Executive Service and as the top civilian at the shipyard responsible for navy reactor plant work on the West Coast. The influence of my former career on my writing is discussed briefly in the “Behind the Books” section of this website.

So how’d I go from nuclear engineering to writing? The short answer is I like to write, it’s fun for me, so I tried my hand at it. I tell people if you want to be a writer you need some talent, a lot of persistence, and a whole lot of luck – probably more luck than talent. In 2004, I got very lucky: a fantastic agent liked The Inside Ring and got me a two book deal with a publisher. I’ve subsequently published seven novels and the eighth will be coming out in 2013. After that, who knows?

Regarding my personal life, let’s just leave at: I’m married, live in the Pacific Northwest, and when I’m not writing I mostly just goof around.

And, also from the website, why he settled on lead character, fixer Joe DeMarco:

Before I even thought about the plot for my first novel, I had already decided a number of things. First, I wanted to write a series of books with the same lead characters as many successful writers have done, people like John Sandford (the Prey series) or Robert Crais (the Elvis Cole books). One reason I like this format is that I’m lazy – I wouldn’t have to invent new characters for every book. Second, I wanted the books to be set in Washington, D.C. There were several reasons for this: I love Washington; I’ve lived and worked there; and I understand a bit about how the government works from my former career. Most importantly, though, with a D.C. setting I could pick up a paper any day of the week and read about the shenanigans taking place there and get an idea for a plot for another novel.

I then decided that the world of fiction didn’t need another detective or cop as the protagonist. There are already too many good books, written by too many good writers, which have detectives or cops as the heroes. So I came up with the idea of DeMarco, a lawyer, an average guy, not all that happy with his job, and who works for John Fitzgerald Mahoney, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mahoney’s a man who has some good traits and more than a few bad ones: he’s an alcoholic, he cheats on his wife, he’s somewhat shady, but at the same time loves life and the American people. I like the idea of DeMarco working in Washington for the Speaker because this allows him to become involved in big issues, things like an assassination attempt on the president (The Inside Ring), a case involving espionage (The Second Perimeter), or terrorists and corrupt politicians as is the case in House Rules.

The third major character in my books is Emma. I wanted a strong female character and I think Emma meets that criteria. Emma is retired from the DIA – the Defense Intelligence Agency. She’s an ex-spy. What I didn’t want was for Emma to be a love interest for DeMarco. The protagonist being in love with or married to his partner has already been done, or overdone, or done too well – and I didn’t want to go down that road. So Emma’s older than DeMarco, brighter and more principled, and maybe tougher too.

Lastly, my novels have been influenced in various ways by my former career where I worked with high-ranking military officers and civilians in the Department of Defense and had dealings with numerous other government organizations and members of Congress. Because of my background, I know how our government works and how the people in it tend to act. In my second novel, The Second Perimeter, some of the action takes place at the naval base where I used to work and the plot, in part, came from a real life security problem at another government organization.


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