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Dark Doings Among The D.C. Monuments

Jul 9, 2012
Originally published on July 9, 2012 10:47 am

In Washington, D.C., the glittering marble of public buildings and monuments can conceal the darkest of deeds. And in the crime novels of Mike Lawson, they do.

"When I started writing, the very first decision I made was, I wanted the book set in D.C.," says Lawson, who recently published his seventh Washington-based thriller, House Blood. "That was before I had a character, or anything else."

And he had a reason.

"It's a target-rich environment for a writer," Lawson says. "There's always something going on here — something corrupt or silly or sometimes heroic."

When Lawson got around to casting his thrillers, he created a lead character called Joe DeMarco, who works for the speaker of the House doing ... what needs to be done.

And he stayed with his plan of making Washington, D.C., the jumping-off place, seeing the city's familiar sights as good places for bad things to happen. In House Secrets, he picked the entrance to a Senate office building as the setting for an assassination attempt.

"The senator was going to walk through those doors right there," he says, walking me past the spot. A teenager with a gun, two shots fired, an unlucky aide — and the senator survives.

"The senator in this book is a fairly charismatic, lucky guy," Lawson says. "And once again, he was lucky, even though he's the bad guy."

'This Is DeMarco's Office'

When he's writing, Lawson needs to "see" what's happening; he likes to have a feel for where his characters hang out. Take DeMarco's office: Exploring the Capitol in the pre-Sept. 11 days, when citizens could roam the building more freely, Lawson decided Joe's office should be tucked away in the bowels of the building.

Nowadays, of course, we need special passes to get to the spot — tucked away in one of the many basements, roughly beneath the office of the speaker of the House.

"I walked into the Capitol, was in the rotunda, and I saw a set of steps with a little velvet rope across it," Lawson recalls. "And I just stepped over the rope, and nobody stopped me or said anything. And then I went down two flights of stairs. ... There was an emergency diesel generator room and printing office, and a janitor's space — and I said, 'Well, this is DeMarco's office.' "

This is an off-the-books office, with a fake title on the door — home turf for a well-connected guy with no job description.

"He's essentially a fixer," Lawson explains. "He goes and does stuff that the speaker doesn't want on the books. There's some little problem to be taken care of that he doesn't really want tied to the office."

'Worst Mistake You Can Make Is A Gun Mistake'

DeMarco's assignments are often reality-based: the Valerie Plame case, in which a CIA agent is "outed," figures in House Justice; in House Blood, Big Pharma is doing bad things with drug-testing in the developing world; The Inside Ring raises prophetic concerns about the president's protective detail. Most of the characters who move DeMarco's plots are vaguely familiar, too — although possibly meaner.

Our next stop on the DeMarco tour is a Georgetown eatery called The Guards, which DeMarco likes because it's quiet and not too expensive — all true. Lawson says he works hard to be accurate.

"If you're not accurate, it's jarring for the reader," he says. "It takes them out of the moment. I made a gun mistake in my first book. Worst mistake you can make is a gun mistake — to have all the people write and tell you how you got the gun wrong."

Across the river from Georgetown is the Iwo Jima Memorial, that massive bronze statue of Marines planting the flag — where two people are killed by snipers in Lawson's sixth D.C. thriller, House Divided.

"I could walk down here and see, 'Well, this is where the body's at, and this is the street, and there's the memorial, and up there in those trees is where the snipers were.' "

Actually visiting the scenes of his crimes helps Lawson keep things realistic. It helps him figure out how a scene would actually play out.

"The view of one [sniper] was blocked by the memorial," he explains. "Before he could take the shot, he had to wait till the guy cleared the memorial."

Arlington Cemetery, just down the Potomac, shows up in several of Lawson's books — because everybody knows what it looks like, he says, and it sets a tone.

"It's beautiful, it's poignant. And then the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is just a remarkable place," Lawson says.

The sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns — changing the guard, marching with beautiful precision, guarding the peace of the dead — have a surprising role in House Divided.

"In one of the last scenes in the book, one of the guys who truly is kind of a bad guy, he's conflicted at this point," Lawson explains. "He used to be one of the sentinels, and he comes up here at dawn. ... And he's thinking about what he's doing" — following the orders of a rogue general — "and what he used to be like when he was one of those sentinels."

As a person who knows her way around the basements of Capitol Hill, I can say that Mike Lawson mostly gets it right. His scoundrels are a little more vivid, perhaps, his hero a big lug who plays dumber than he really is.

But where most Washington thrillers are exasperating to the locals, these are entertaining. And I guess I would like to live in a Washington where the good guys always win.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time now for another Crime in the City, our summer reading series celebrating mysteries and thrillers. The city this morning is Washington, D.C., where the glittering marble of public buildings and monuments can conceal the darkest of deeds.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

We're about to tour the city with Mike Lawson, who's just out with his seventh thriller set in Washington. Lawson worked for the Navy as a civilian for many years and spent some of those years in D.C. When he retired, he decided he wanted to write. He's a fan of Robert Crais and John Sandford, and he thought maybe write a series of thrillers. He started with one idea - Washington.

MIKE LAWSON: When I started writing, the very first decision I made was, I wanted the book set in D.C. That was before I had a character or anything else. And the reason for that is I've always told people that D.C. is a target-rich environment for a writer. There's always something going on here, something corrupt or silly or sometimes heroic. And then the city itself, I love the city.

WERTHEIMER: When Lawson got around to casting his thrillers, he created a lead character called Joe DeMarco who works for the Speaker of the House doing what needs to be done. But Lawson stayed with his plan of making Washington, D.C. the jumping-off place, seeing the familiar sights of the city as good places for bad things to happen. For instance, in the book, "House Secrets," Lawson liked the entrance to a Senate office building as a setting for an assassination attempt.

LAWSON: The senator was going to walk through those doors right there, those double doors. And he's preceded by two Secret Service agents. And the agents, not thinking, they just sort of open the door like doormen and sort of stood to the side. At the bottom of those steps was this young kid who wanted to shoot the senator for reasons not worth going into. But he fired the gun twice and he hit the senator's aide. And the senator in this book is a fairly charismatic, lucky guy. And once again, he was lucky, even though he's the bad guy.

WERTHEIMER: Sounds like a movie. Lawson needs to see what's happening; he likes to have a feel for where his characters hang out, like DeMarco's office. Exploring in the pre-9/11 days, when citizens could roam more freely, Lawson decided Joe's office should be tucked away in the bowels of the Capitol Building, so we went down there. Nowadays, of course, we needed special passes for this kind of access.

Now, we're in one of the many basements of the Capitol. Roughly speaking, we're underneath where the speakers' offices are, so this is the kind of real estate you picked out for your hero to occupy?

LAWSON: Yes, it is. I walked into the Capitol - was in the Rotunda -, and I saw a set of steps with a little velvet rope across it. And I just stepped over the rope and nobody stopped me or said anything. And then I went down two flights of stairs. And I remember seeing a cord at the time. There was an emergency diesel generator room and a printing office and a janitor's space. And I said, well, this is DeMarco's office.

WERTHEIMER: This is an off-the-books office with a fake title on the door for a big guy with no job description.

LAWSON: He's essentially a fixer. I mean, he goes and does stuff that the speaker doesn't want on the books. If there's some little problem to be taken care of he doesn't really want tied to the office, he'll loan Joe out to friends - go do things for them. But he's basically a political fixer.

WERTHEIMER: Joe's assignments are also reality based: the Valerie Plame case where a CIA agent is outed; in the newest book, the bad doings of Big Pharma, testing new drugs in the Third World; in a previous book, prophetic concerns about the president's protective detail. And most of the characters who move DeMarco's plots are vaguely familiar too, although possibly meaner.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

WERTHEIMER: Our next stop on the DeMarco tour, a Georgetown eatery called The Guards, which DeMarco likes because it's quiet and not too expensive - that's all true. Mike Lawson says he works hard to be accurate.

LAWSON: If you're not accurate, it's jarring for the reader. It takes them out of the moment. I made a gun mistake in my first book. Worst mistake you can make is a gun mistake, to have all the people write and tell you how you got the gun wrong.

WERTHEIMER: Moving around again over the bridge from Georgetown to the Iwo Jima Memorial - the massive bronze statue of marines planting the flag - where two people are killed by snipers in "House Divided."

LAWSON: I could walk down here and see, well, this is where the body's at, and this is the street and there's the memorial. And up there in those trees is where the snipers were, and the view of one of them was blocked by the memorial. Before he could take the shot, he had to wait till the guy cleared the memorial.

WERTHEIMER: You do this a lot? You come to Washington and walk around ad try to figure out how something would work if it really did happen here?

LAWSON: I do. But I'm not actually doing like you would do in a movie, just laying it out, you know, frame by frame, except in my head.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Arlington Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns is just down the river. The cemetery is in several of Lawson's books because, he says, everyone knows what it looks like and it sets a tone.

LAWSON: It's beautiful. It's poignant. And then, you know, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is just a, you know, it's just a remarkable place. And then I ended up using, you know, the soldiers themselves in the sixth book, "House Divide."

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CHANGING OF THE GUARDS)

WERTHEIMER: The sentinels, at the Tomb of the Unknowns, changing the guard, marching with beautiful precision, guarding the peace of the dead; Lawson gives them a surprising role in "House Divided." We watched a guard change that day at Arlington and Lawson described a scene at the tomb from that book.

LAWSON: In one of the last scenes in the book, one of the guys who truly is kind of a bad guy, he's conflicted at this point. He used to be one of the sentinels. And he comes up here at dawn and you can, you know, see from there the Washington Monument - it's dawn. And he's thinking about what he's doing and what he used to be like when he was one of those sentinels. And again, I like that image of him being conflicted. And here's this pure scene of the guard at the tomb, and this bad guy thinking about what he's doing.

WERTHEIMER: What he's been doing is following the orders of a rogue general.

Now, a person who knows her way around the basements of Capitol, I can say that Mike Lawson mostly gets it right. His scoundrels are a little more vivid perhaps, his hero is a big lug who plays dumber than he really is. Most Washington thrillers are exasperating to the locals. These are entertaining, and I guess I would like to live in a Washington where the good guys always win.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.