Washington political thrillers are, for the most part, born to be boring. The hero is usually some high-minded lawyer who’s become disillusioned after placing his trust in a corrupt government official who happens to be a blood relative. Either that or he’s some high-minded former spy who jeopardizes life and pension by coming out of retirement to get mixed up in a preposterous plot involving assassins from unpronounceable nations.
The nice thing about Mike Lawson’s Washington thrillers is that nobody is high-minded. Certainly not John Fitzpatrick Mahoney, speaker of the House (“and God help the country”) and as unscrupulous a politician as you’d hope to find outside a federal prison cell. Nor could you pin that high-and-holy tag on Mahoney’s go-to guy, Joe DeMarco, who holes up in a subbasement office of the Capitol building and surfaces only when the speaker has some dirty business that needs to be done.
In HOUSE JUSTICE (Atlantic Monthly, $24), Mahoney locks egos with Jacob LaFountaine, the director of the C.I.A., who is apoplectic because someone in government leaked information to a reporter, Sandra Whitmore, that resulted in the execution of a valued undercover agent in Iran. Mahoney has a pretty good idea who tipped the intelligence to Whitmore, who has cheerfully gone to jail to protect her source (and advance her career). But since Mahoney doesn’t want it known that he once had an affair with her, there’s nothing he can do about this mess — except call for DeMarco to bring his bucket and clean it up. And because Lawson delights in inverting even the most banal of genre conventions, he makes sure that a clandestine meeting between the two men takes place not in a dark bar, but at a kids’ ballgame.
Once some Russian gangsters muscle into the story, the book meets its own quota for preposterous plot developments. But Lawson’s homegrown characters — the ones plucked from that busy intersection inside the Beltway where politics, journalism and big money meet to do business — are so flamboyantly and unapologetically corrupt that no matter what they do, they do it with a certain integrity. When Mahoney looks to a photo of Tip O’Neill for inspiration on how to force a congressman out of office, he’s only being true to himself.