Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

House Rules

A Joe DeMarco Thriller

by Mike Lawson

“Lawson’s engaging characters, with DeMarco leading the pack, come across as seriously flawed individuals trying to navigate a political world of high demands and constant distractions. Full of insider information, this novel reinforces Lawson’s place in the upper rank of Washington thriller specialists.” —Publishers Weekly

  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 400
  • Publication Date June 10, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3983-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $23.00

About The Book

Mike Lawson’s Joe DeMarco thrillers have drawn praise for their fine-tuned suspense, off-kilter characters, intricate plots, and revealing portrait of Washington, DC behind closed doors. House Rules, the third novel in the series, opens with a narrowly averted terrorist attack, a bomb meant for the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. Then a private plane headed straight for the White House ignores warnings and is shot down. The pilot, a Muslim American, is suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda. An atmosphere of fear and panic overruns the country, and when the junior senator from Virginia introduces legislation to deport all noncitizen Muslims and start extensive background checks of all Muslim Americans, his bill gains surprising traction.

Speaker of the House John Fitzgerald Mahoney is not pleased. He knows it is the kind of knee-jerk intolerant response people will come to regret, like the Japanese internment camps in World War II, and he needs to find a way to kill the bill before it reaches the House. But Mahoney has a secret—the man who tried to park his plane on the president’s desk was the son of one of his oldest friends. The speaker is in a bind, and also has some vague suspicions about the attack, so he calls his man DeMarco.

An average guy, DeMarco struggles with debt, divorce, and a difficult, unreasonable boss. He is an unlikely hero, in over his head, relying on old friends—Emma, a spy who may or may not be retired, and Neil, an information broker—as he attempts to get to the bottom of the attacks. House Rules is a riveting read, full of suspense, fascinating characters, humor, and timely political intrigue.


“Lawson’s engaging characters, with DeMarco leading the pack, come across as seriously flawed individuals trying to navigate a political world of high demands and constant distractions. Full of insider information, this novel reinforces Lawson’s place in the upper rank of Washington thriller specialists.” —Publishers Weekly

“Continuing the adventures of legislative fixer Joe DeMarco, Lawson pits his hero against an unholy alliance of meth manufacturers and politicians. He’s following orders from his boss, the Speaker of the House, a shrewd, bourbon-swilling philanderer who, except for his political affiliation, could not be less like Nancy Pelosi. A pragmatic Boston Irishman with an eye for the ladies, Speaker Mahoney is a latter-day Tip O’Neill, wielding the levers of power like so many draught beer handles. He keeps DeMarco on a fat salary but hides him in the Capitol basement until he’s needed to handle those special errands such as the delivery of cash envelopes and the deconstruction of conspiracies, the latter being the task at hand. . . . [House Rules is] a pleasantly relaxed thriller.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Snappy third thriller starring congressional snoop Joe DeMarco . . . Full of insider information, this novel reinforces Lawson’s place in the upper rank of Washington thriller specialists.” —Publishers Weekly

“Lawson fleshes out his characters while developing a plausible and increasingly tense plot. Just enough uncertainty in the satisfying conclusion hints that another series entry is likely. Highly recommended.” —Andrew Smith, Library Journal

House Rules continues the adventures of Joe DeMarco, a pretty regular guy who happens to be a clandestine fixer for a powerful congressman. DeMarco has to figure out, in an overheated and panicky D.C., what connects several deaths with a proposed law to curtail the rights of Muslim Americans. He enlists the help of a few friends, notably his enigmatic ex-spook friend Emma.” —Adam Woog, Seattle Times

“One of the most frightening thrillers of 2008. . . . I have enjoyed Lawson’s The Inside Ring and The Second Perimeter, and, not to take anything away from these political thrillers, House Rules exceeds the suspense and originality of his prior works. . . . I know its cliché, but House Rules is a page turner that can’t be put down! Lawson, I hate you—I got very little sleep while trying to keep up with DeMarco. Now what am I going to do for the rest of 2008 while waiting for your fourth installment?” —Paul Anik, I Love a Mystery

“A lot of the hours when I’m not reading are spent searching for thrillers that I might want to read. What I am looking for are those with a smooth writing style, a complex yet fast-paced plot, and a likable hero. So I was absolutely delighted to finally discover Mike Lawson. . . . The 3rd in his series about Joe DeMarco is House Rules, and it’s an entertaining read. . . . This smart political thriller offers readers both a wild ride and thought-provoking issues. In many ways, House Rules reminded me of the novels of the late Ross Thomas; this, from me, is high praise, indeed.” —Nancy Pearl, Pearl’s Picks

“A wild romp through the nation’s capital and into the mean streets of New York, as well as the backwoods of Virginia, the beaches of Key west, and Montana’s wide open spaces. We encounter mob bosses, meth kings, hired assassins, lobbyists, cynical politicians, disenchanted bureaucrats, disenchanted Muslims, disenchanted security guards, and a cute schoolteacher. . . . I’d have no hesitation in recommending this book as a terrific beach read this summer.” —Barbara Lloyd McMichael, Kitsap Sun

“Lawson’s political thrillers [have] a very real feel.” —Bill Mickelson, North Kitsap Herald

House Rules has it all: a lightning-paced plot, a quirky cast of players, and best of all, one of the most engaging heroes I’ve ever encountered. In Joe DeMarco, Mike Lawson has created a charmingly likable character whom I’ll happily follow for many books to come.” —Tess Gerritsen, author of The Bone Garden

“Mike Lawson’s The Inside Ring is one of the most assured first novels I’ve ever read. His next one, The Second Perimeter, continued in the voice of a master story-teller. His third, the forthcoming House Rules is, in my opinion, a knockout. Relaxed, slightly droll, yet in total command of a complicated plot, you have to believe this guy has been telling tales for a lot of years, but just recently started writing them down.” —Bill Farley, Seattle Mystery Bookshop

“The kind of whodunit thriller you can’t stop thinking about while you’re reading and can’t stop talking about once you’re done. Smart, original, crafted with true insider knowledge, brimming with vivid characters, and a forward drive that just won’t quit. . . . I couldn’t put it down.” —Vince Flynn on The Inside Ring


Selected as a July ’08 Indie Next List title (formerly Book Sense)


Chapter 1

The two F-16 Falcons screamed down the runway at Andrews Air Force Base.

Pete Dalton—Lieutenant Colonel Dalton—lived for this. There was absolutely no other experience on the planet like flying an armed-to-the-teeth air force fighter.

It was the week before Thanksgiving, and when the klaxon went off, Dalton and his wingman had been sitting in the ready trailer at Andrews, bitching that they’d been assigned to work the holiday, although Dalton didn’t really care that much. Then the klaxon blared and they were out of the trailer, into their planes, and tearing down the runway five minutes later.

As they were ascending into the skies over Washington, they were briefed on the situation. Some idiot in a small slow-moving plane had just taken off from an airfield in Stafford, Virginia. The guy was at three thousand feet and doing eighty-six knots, almost a hundred miles an hour. He had flown briefly to the south, then turned northeast and crossed into the outer zone and was not responding to air traffic controllers at Dulles.

There are two air defense zones around the nation’s capital, an inner and an outer zone. The outer zone has a ragged, roughly circular boundary that extends thirty to fifty miles outward from the Washington Monument. This zone is called the ADIZ—the Air Defense Identification Zone. To enter the ADIZ a pilot has to identify himself, must have an operating transponder that broadcasts a signal identifying his aircraft, and must remain in continuous two-way communication with FAA controllers. The second zone, the inner zone, is the no-fly zone. The no-fly zone is a perfect circle extending out sixteen miles from the Washington Monument. The only aircraft allowed to enter this area aside from commercial traffic going in and out of Reagan National Airport have to be specially cleared.

The fool in question hadn’t identified himself, his transponder was either malfunctioning or disabled, and he wasn’t responding to queries from FAA controllers. He was doing everything wrong. When the unidentified aircraft was two miles inside the ADIZ, thirty-three miles and approximately twenty minutes from all the government buildings in D.C., a whole bunch of things began to happen.

An air force colonel in Rome, New York—the officer commanding NORAD’s Northeast Air Defense Sector—scrambled the F-16s out of Andrews; Blackhawk helicopters under the control of Homeland Security lifted off from Reagan National; the Secret Service and the U.S. Capitol Police were alerted and told to be prepared to evacuate the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court; and men in secret locations throughout Washington who are qualified to fire surface-to-air missiles were notified and told to stand by.

At the same time, four people were paged: the secretary of defense, his deputy, a navy admiral located at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado who had overall command of NORAD, and an air force major general located at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida who was responsible for NORAD’s operations in the continental United States. These four people were paged because they had been delegated the authority by the president of the United States to shoot down a plane entering the no-fly zone.

Dalton was fairly certain, however, that it wouldn’t come to that; it never had in the past. He expected that within the next two minutes the dummy from Stafford would be on his radio saying, “Oh, shit, sorry,” about sixteen times and then get headed in the right direction, and Dalton would be ordered back to Andrews before he could have any fun.

But these incidents, pilots breaching the ADIZ, occurred two or three times a week, and once Dalton had been on duty when it happened three times in one day. These muttonheads who couldn’t read a map or a compass, who had their radios turned off or set to the wrong frequency, would blunder into the ADIZ and then have the livin’ shit scared out of ’em when two F-16s went roaring past them at six hundred miles an hour.

“Huntress. Hawk Flight. Bogey still not responding. Snap vector three-twenty for thirty. Intercept and ID. Noses cold.”

Huntress was the call sign for the colonel commanding the Northeastern Air Defense Sector. He had tactical command of the F-16s. Hawk Flight was the two F-16s: Hawk One was Pete Dalton; Hawk Two was his wingman, Major Jeff Fields. Snap vector 320 for 30 meant the bogey was on a bearing of 320 degrees and 30 miles from the Hawk Flight’s position. Noses cold meant they were to approach with their weapons systems unarmed—which was a damn good thing for the bogey.

Dalton responded. “Hawk One. Huntress. Copy that. Proceeding to intercept.”

The unidentified aircraft was now twenty-four miles and fourteen minutes from Washington, D.C.

Dalton could see the bogey on his radar, and a minute later he could make out a dot in the sky that had to be it. He and Fields headed directly at the dot, and when they were half a mile away, and the bogey was clearly visible—and they were visible to it—Dalton split to the right and Fields to the left, and they blasted past the plane, coming within a hundred yards of its wingtips. Dalton looked over his shoulder and saw the bogey wobble in the jet wash caused by the F-16s, and he figured that whoever was flying that baby was sitting there right now in a puddle of his own piss.

Dalton and Fields made tight loops in the sky and came in behind the plane, slowing down to match its speed.

The bogey was now twenty miles and twelve minutes from Washington.

“Hawk One. Huntress. Bogey is a Cessna One-fifty, tail number N3459J. Repeat N3459J.”

“Huntress. Hawk One. Copy that. Attempt contact.”

“Hawk One. Huntress. Roger that.” Dalton switched frequencies on his radio. “Cessna 3459, Cessna 3459. This is the Air National Guard. Respond. Respond. You are approaching the no-fly zone. Respond.”

Nothing came back from the Cessna. Shit.

“Cessna 3459. Cessna 3459. Respond or you will be fired upon. You are entering the no-fly zone.”

Nothing. It was possible, of course, that the Cessna’s radio wasn’t working or that the pilot was unconscious and the plane was flying itself. That had happened before, though not this close to the capital.

“Hawk One. Huntress. Cessna 3459 is not responding. Going alongside for visual.”

“Huntress. Hawk One. Copy that and proceed.”

While his wingman stayed behind the Cessna, Dalton pulled up next to it, the tip of his starboard wing less than fifty feet from the other plane. He waved his right hand at the pilot, signaling for him to get the hell out of the air and down on the ground, but the Cessna pilot, the damn guy, was staring straight ahead, not even looking over at Dalton’s jet. He looked like he was in a trance.

Jesus, Dalton thought. The pilot looks like an Arab.

The Cessna was seventeen miles and ten minutes from D.C.

“Hawk One. Huntress. Cessna not responding. Pilot ignoring visual contact.”

“Huntress. Hawk Flight. Fire flares.”

“Hawk One. Huntress. Roger that. Firing flares.”

Dalton and his wingman shot ahead of the Cessna and made tight turns in the sky to come back at it. This was the sort of maneuver they practiced a dozen times a month. Each pilot fired two flares. The flares missed the Cessna, but not by much, the closest one coming within thirty feet of the Cessna’s cockpit. There was no way the Cessna pilot didn’t see those flares—or the F-16s coming directly at him once again.

But the guy just kept going, never deviating from his original course.

The Cessna was now ten miles—six minutes—from Washington.

Dalton shot past the Cessna again, turned, and pulled up alongside it a second time. He waggled his wings and waved an arm at the pilot. No response. The bastard just sat there like he was made of stone. Dalton reached out to—aw, shit! The Cessna had assumed a downward angle. It was going to cut right across one of the approaches to Reagan National. Beyond the airport, across the Potomac, Dalton could see the White House.

This son of a bitch was headed directly at the White House—and the Cessna was now less than three minutes away from it.

Dalton wasn’t concerned about his F-16 or the Cessna colliding with commercial airplanes going in and out of Reagan National. He knew that by now every plane within a hundred miles either was on the ground or had been diverted away from D.C. Dalton also knew that at this point the White House was being evacuated: guards screaming, people running and tripping and falling, images of 9/11 burned into their brains. Dalton didn’t know if the president was in town, but if he was, two big Secret Service guys had him by the arms and were running him to the bunker, the president’s feet not even hitting the ground.

The Cessna was now four miles—less than two and a half minutes—from the White House.

Dalton spoke into his radio. “Hawk One. Huntress. Cessna not responding. I repeat. Cessna ignoring all attempts at contact.” Dalton knew that he sounded calm—he’d been trained to sound calm—but his heart was hammering in his chest like it was going to blow through his breastbone. He also knew he didn’t have to tell anybody where the guy in the Cessna was headed.

There was no immediate response from Huntress. Oh, shit! Dalton thought. Please, God, don’t let somebody’s goddamn radio go out now. Then his radio squawked.

“Huntress. Hawk One. Bogey declared hostile. Arm hot. You are cleared to fire. Repeat. Arm hot. Cleared to fire.”

Now Dalton understood the pause. The word had gone up and back down the chain of command. One of those four men who had the authority to give that order had just given it.

Dalton knew this was his mission. This was the reason they’d spent all those years and all that money training him. This was the reason he was flying an F-16 Falcon. But he had never really expected to have to execute the command he’d just been given.

Dalton hesitated, he hesitated too long—he hesitated long enough to end his career.

“Huntress. Hawk One. Did you copy that order?”

“Hawk One. Huntress. Roger that. Arm hot. Cleared to fire.”

And then Lieutenant Colonel Peter Dalton did what he’d been trained to do. He reached down and toggled the master arm switch in the cockpit to ON, slowed down to increase the distance between him and the smaller plane, and just as the Cessna was crossing over the Potomac River—less than two miles from the White House—he fired.

NORAD and the Air National Guard refused to tell the media what sort of weapon had been used to destroy the Cessna. Ordnance and armament used to protect the capital from aerial assault are classified. But whatever Dalton fired, it struck the Cessna and a ball of flame fifty yards in diameter bloomed in the sky over the Potomac. Pieces seemed to rain down onto the river for a solid minute after the Cessna had been obliterated.

Author Interview

J.B. Dickey, owner of Seattle Mystery Bookshop, interviews Mike Lawson, author of House Rules: A Joe DeMarco Thriller.

J.B. Dickey: What kind of books do you like to read and how did they impact what you write?

Mike Lawson: I read everything, nonfiction, literary, and of course, genre fiction. Right now I’m reading The Worst Hard Time the National Book Award Winner by Tim Egan about the dust bowl. Nonfiction, I concluded early on, takes too much work to write. Literary fiction, though I enjoy reading some, never seemed that it would be as much fun to write as the stuff I write. (And to be really honest, I’m not sure I have the temperament or talent for literary fiction.) I obviously read a lot in the genre I write in—thrillers and mysteries—and this reading impacted my writing in the following way: I quickly concluded that the world didn’t need another protagonist who was a lawyer or a cop or a detective—there were already too many good ones out there—and that’s how I came up with DeMarco, a fixer working for the Speaker of the House.

JBD: How did you come up with the characters of DeMarco and Emma? Did you start with them and move on to plot or did they grow out of the plot?

ML: I started with the characters and the setting, not the plots. As I said above, I wanted DeMarco to stand out from the crowd of other protagonists in some way. Second, I wanted him to have some sort of D.C. connection. So many crazy things happen in Washington every day, in real life, that the denizens of that city provide an endless source for future plots. Emma was created as she is for two reasons: First, I didn’t want her to be a love interest for DeMarco. Again, there are too many books out there where the male/female team are lovers or ex-lovers. Second, Emma was a “device”—with her background in the DIA and her connections in the D.C. intelligence community, she is able to give DeMarco access to information and resources he wouldn’t have himself.

JBD: Your plots are very topical—is it difficult to narrow down, from all that is going on in the world, to make the plot for a single book.

ML: Yes. The idea that sparked House Rules was an article in The Washington Post on the no-fly zone around D.C. As I said above, there’s always something going on in D.C.—a scandal, an intrigue, a misuse of power, etc.—so I don’t think I have to worry too much about running out of plot ideas for some time to come. It’s as you said: it’s really a matter of picking out the most interesting political shenanigan from all the others occurring.

JBD: I’ve heard you mention that this new book is not the third book you’ve written, just the third book published. What are the earlier books like and do you want to see them published eventually? Or, like Chandler, are you going to cannibalize them for future books?

ML: This gets kinda complicated. House Rules was the fourth book I wrote, but the third one published. My fourth book, House Secrets, which will be published by Grove in 2009, was actually the second book I wrote, but I wanted to publish it later because of the topic. I have a couple of books still in my laptop that I haven’t shown to anyone yet and I hope they’ll make it to the printed page sometime in the future, even if not in the order I wrote them [or something like that]. So far I haven’t had to cannibalize a book I couldn’t publish—but it’s early.

JBD: Do you think Emma might ever be the main character in a book without DeMarco, for instance dealing with her earlier years?

ML: I wouldn’t rule anything out. I’ve thought about writing about Emma’s earlier life and how she came to have a daughter and joined the DIA. Another possibility is a book related to DeMarco’s father—the ex-mafia hitman who was killed about the time DeMarco went to college. Obviously, I think, Mahoney could carry a book by himself, some intrigue that he couldn’t even share with DeMarco. It’s a luxury to have so many paths to explore.

JBD: If you could write a book like another author, who would you like to write like? And why?

ML: That’s a tough question. There are a lot of writers out there whose work I admire. I find most authors a bit boring when they start describing “things”—a room, a house, a lake, etc. But people like James Lee Burke and Thomas Harris are so good that their descriptions of things are fascinating and, in Burke’s case, downright poetic. I admire Elmore Leonard and the late George V. Higgins for their ability to give the reader a complete picture of a character just using dialogue with no space wasted on wordy descriptions. I admire the plots of Thomas Perry and John Sanford—complex and intricate without being contrived. I could go on forever—there are just a lot of good writers out there who have skills I admire—and in some cases, skills that make me jealous.

JBD: If you can talk about it, how has your work in the defense field help you in your writing and plotting?

ML: My second book, The Second Perimeter, was set in part at the naval facility where I worked. I could have put some sexy, top secret stuff in the book, but I didn’t. Some things are classified for very good reasons and should stay classified, and I don’t want a couple of cranky guys knocking on my door saying that they need to have a little talk with me. But my prior life working for the navy has really helped my books in that I spent time in D.C., have a pretty good feel for the way bureaucracies and bureaucrats work, and, because I worked with the military at a pretty senior level, I have some sources that other writers don’t have.

JBD: Did you envision DeMarco and Emma being long-running series characters from the start?

ML: Absolutely. I decided from the get-go about a couple things. One, mentioned above, is that I wanted the books to have some sort of D.C. connection. The second thing I decided was that I wanted to write a series, hoping my books would have the appeal of other series writers like John Sandford, Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, just to name a few. Also, I’m lazy—and if you write a series you don’t have to invent new characters for every book.

JBD: Different authors have different feelings about their series, some feeling restricted while others have built flexibility into their characters. Do you consider DeMarco and Emma to be characters that you could write about for a long time?

ML: I very much envision DeMarco and Emma as characters that could be in a long running series − there’s no end to plots for these characters. However, sometimes the series format, because the main characters have established backgrounds, can be restrictive. I have two book ideas right now—both political thrillers—that I can’t, at this point, see as DeMarco books. So the answer to your question is: I can write a lot more books with DeMarco and Emma, but there are probably some books I can’t write if I only use those characters as protagonists.

JBD: What’s next? Are there ideas for many books yet to come?

ML: The fourth DeMarco book, which has already been edited, concerns a politician who Mahoney deeply admires but who has some very nasty secrets in his closet. The book is titled House Secrets and the mob and the CIA are in the mix. I’ve got enough books in my head and in my laptop—that with the help of a few good booksellers—will keep me busy for years to come.

JBD: Do you find yourself wanting to write, for the lack of a better term, straight fiction?

ML: At this point, no. I like the kind of stuff I’m writing now – it’s fun to write and, hopefully, fun to read. I want to entertain, not preach. Occasionally I think about serious topics—like the state of the economy and the country, the misery that exists in various places, the chaos caused by war and poverty, etc.—and I think about writing novels about those things—but right now that doesn’t appeal to me. Maybe someday, but not now.

JBD: If you were a pony, what color would you be?

ML: Why the hell do I have to be a pony? Why can’t I be a stallion or a thoroughbred? I think this is an insult cleverly disguised as a question: a cruel reference to my stature, my physique, my maturity, my profile. As soon as I get this feedbag off my face, I’m coming down to your bookstore to give you the thrashing you deserve.