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The Inside Ring by Michael Lawson

Publisher: Doubleday Language: ISBN: 0385515316

Reviewed by Dana King, New Mystery Reader       

Political thrillers never go out of style. World War II evolves into the Cold War, the Evil Empire becomes the Axis of Evil, and people with a taste for conspiracy in their escapism hunger for plots that turn back on each other. Michael Lawson’s The Inside Ring is a good example, and not just because it has all the ingredients for the formula; this is a good book.

The Inside Ring refers to the Secret Service agents closest to the President, those sworn to sacrifice themselves if necessary. Lawson’s book begins with a assassination attempt that may have occurred because of a breach in the inside ring, a possibility too frightening to contemplate for anyone involved in presidential security.

The son of a deceased Mafia hit man, Joe DeMarco has turned his back on his father’s business and gone to law school. Unfortunately for Joe, no big law firm will touch him because of his pedigree. He winds up with a manufactured job, working for the Speaker of the House digging up information (dirt) that can be used as persuasion (pressure) to suit the Speaker’s needs. Unsure why the Speaker has tasked him with it, Joe’s investigation eventually touches the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Directors of the FBI and Secret Service as he keeps pulling at the threads of what may, or may not, be a conspiracy reaching to the upper levels of the government.

I didn’t know this was Lawson’s first novel until after I read it; I would not have guessed. His story flows, his characters remain true to themselves, and plot points are plausibly rooted in their actions. Lawson does have characters in two-person conversations refer to each other too often at times (“Hello, Joe.” “Hello, Emma.” “How are you, Joe?” “I’m fine, Emma.”) but the dialog is generally good and, best of all, sounds like people talking instead of narrative enclosed in quotes.

The Inside Ring’s best feature is Joe DeMarco. He isn’t the usual cop or detective, yet more plausible than some everyman thrown into a situation he is unequipped to handle. Best of all is that DeMarco is normal. Current taste seems to mandate that every hero be deaf, blind, distraught over his divorced or dead wife, a recovering alcoholic, a non-recovering alcoholic, drug addict, in a wheelchair, take your pick. Joe DeMarco is a guy, with strengths and weaknesses we all recognize: baseball fan, divorced from a slut he doesn’t miss but unable to get a new relationship up to speed, not liking his job much but not sure what else he can do. In short, a believable and sympathetic hero who makes mistakes and deals with them like everyone else. He has a tendency to get into trouble he can’t get himself out of, but Lawson makes sure to set up DeMarco’s salvation without stretching the reader’s credulity too far.

The Inside Ring doesn’t have the gratuitous sexual tension too many thrillers depend on to maintain the suspense that should be inherent in the story. Lawson doesn’t avoid sexual overtones, this episode in DeMarco’s life doesn’t give him an opportunity to approach several potentially interesting women. There are indications the next one might.

The next story will be worth following, whether DeMarco gets a love interest or not. Michael Lawson might be on to a franchise here. Don’t be the one standing around wondering in a few years what all the excitement’s about. 


Street Fighter by Bill Kent

Publisher:  Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Minotaur  ISBN:  0-312-32883-4

Reviewed by Susan Illis, New Mystery Reader

Paulie Small has just enjoyed a huge dinner at Villa Verdi and is looking forward to enjoying the rest of the night in the arms of his lover, Teal Cavaletta.  Instead, he is attacked and beaten with his cane on a street in Westyard, the Philadelphia neighborhood where he resides.  A few nights later, Teal is assaulted in her own home, but she survives.

Philadelphia Press obituary writer “Shep” Ladderback is trying to decide whether to write a feature obituary on Small when his sometime assistant and Mr. Action columnist Andrea (Andy) Cosicki reveals that Teal’s daughter, martial arts instructor Lucia, is a good friend of hers.  And so the two journalists embark on parallel investigations of Small’s murder.  While Ladderback focuses on Small’s use of veteran’s subsidies for his redevelopment projects, Andy is drawn into the troubled Anglo/Asian relationships in the Westyard neighborhood.  Her investigations keep taking her back to the murder of Lucia’s friend, CeCe (daughter of Villa Verdi’s owner), several years ago, and it seems increasingly likely that the young girl’s murder has some bearing on the current spate of violence.

This book is the third in author Bill Kent’s series.  He does a fine job of evoking a fictional working class neighborhood struggling with the unrelated problems of gentrification and ethnic problems.  In the agoraphobic, occasionally stuffy Ladderback, he has created an enormously sympathetic character; Andy, too, is extremely likeable, although her character doesn’t always ring true.  The most interesting character, Logo, doesn’t appear until the end of the novel.  The mystery, easily solved, takes a backseat to the interplay of the characters.