Friday, March 31, 2023

LOOKING BACK: Guest Post by Mike Lawson


My sixteenth Joe DeMarco thriller, Alligator Alley, was released in February this year, and I couldn’t help but think how lucky I’ve been to have a publisherMorgan Entrekin, president of Grove Atlanticwho’s allowed me the opportunity to write such a long-running series. So I felt grateful, and the publication of the sixteenth book was an occasion to celebratewhich I didbut it was also an event that caused me to think back on the origin of the series and the decisions I made. 

When I decided to try my hand at writing, the first decision was easy. I decided to write a crime fiction series because those were the type of books I liked to read, such as those written by John D. MacDonald (Travis McGee) and Rex Stout (Nero Wolfe) and Robert B. Parker (Spenser). The second decision was to have the books “gravitate” around Washington D.C. One reason I did this was because I worked there for a while. But the main reason was because Washington D.C. is a target rich environment for a writer, meaning that with all the shenanigans that take place there—and now more so than ever—I figured I’d always be able to find an idea for the next book. And that’s turned out to be the case. Then came the third decision, which was the hardest. Who did I want the protagonist in the series to be? I realized that there were already too many great crime fiction protagonists that were cops or private detectives or lawyers or CIA agents and so forth. I needed a protagonist who would be unique in some way.  And that’s when I settled on DeMarco, a fixer for a semi-corrupt Speaker of the House named John Mahoney. A third recurring character in the books is an enigmatic, former spy named Emma. Unlike DeMarco and Mahoney, there are moral lines Emma won’t cross and she keeps DeMarco somewhat honest. 

You’ll notice that I used the words “gravitate around Washington D.C.” as opposed to “set in Washington D.C.” The reason for this is that almost all my books start with DeMarco getting an assignment from his boss, Mahoney, to poke into something that usually ends up being lethal. So the jump-off-point for the books—as opposed to the setting—is usually Washington. And the plots often come out of things that I would call D.C.-centric. The first DeMarco book, The Inside Ring, had to do with Secret Service agents possibly conspiring to assassinate the president. Other books have involved jaded senators, conniving lobbyists, the NSA, and the CIA. But my novels are often set in locations far from Washington and that’s usually because some real-life event was the inspiration for the books. For example, one book was set in North Dakota because of an article I read about how little state legislators there are paid and how they were easy targets for corruption. Another book evolved from a front-page photo of a little, old woman protesting in the rain because an unscrupulous real estate developer—no, not him—had caused her to be evicted from her apartment. I set that book in Boston because that’s where Mahoney’s constituents live. A true story about Chinese spies stealing classified information from the Los Alamos National Laboratory sparked another book, but I set that one at the naval base where I used to work in Washington state. An article in Vanity Fair about drug testing in third world countries led to DeMarco and Emma ending up Peru. The setting of my latest book, Alligator Alley, however, was mostly personal. I chose the setting because when my son graduated from the navy’s diver training program in Panama City, my wife and I toured the state, and as we drove down Highway 75—AKA Alligator Alley—I realized it would be the perfect place to dispose of a corpse.

So overall, I’ve been pleased by the choices I’ve made when it comes to the DeMarco series. I don’t have a problem coming up with plots for the books. (The book I’m currently working on has to do with presidential documents sent to the National Archives by mistake. I’m sure you can guess where that idea came from.) I like that I can vary the plots from issues dealing with big government institutions to personal issues connected to the recurring characters in the books. I enjoy moving the stories around to different parts of the country and it’s been fun watching the characters in the series change as the real world changes. I’ve only seen two problems. One is a good problem to have; the other not so good.

The good problem is that when writing a series, you want each book to stand alone so readers don’t have to begin with the first book to know what’s going on. This means that in every book, I have to basically repeat the background on the recurring characters and it’s a challenge to find a different way to say the same thing I’ve said sixteen times before. But that’s not a bad problem to have. 

The other problem is not so nice to have, and it’s connected to the divided, politically supercharged era we live in. My books are classified as political thrillers—but they’re not political. By that I mean I’m not trying to push a political agenda or ideology in my novels. My only objective is to entertain. But as the books often involve politicians and current things happening in the world of politics, I have to choose my words carefully these days because you can’t believe the nasty emails I get when I offend some reader’s strongly held and often irrational beliefs. This rarely happened with the books published prior to 2016, but since 2016 the I’ll-never-buy-your-books-again emails come more often. I imagine I’m not the only writer that has this problem and it would probably be fun to compare hateful, politically inspired emails.  


MIKE LAWSON is a former senior civilian executive for the U.S. Navy. He is the author of fifteen novels starring Joe DeMarco, three novels with his protagonist Kay Hamilton, and one standalone novel Redemption.


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