Author: John Hart

2011, Thomas Dunne Books

Filed under: Mystery, Thriller

I first read John Hart when his last novel, The Last Child, was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2010—Child later won that prize, giving Hart back-to-back wins for his second and third novels.

That streak is over. Iron House, Hart’s recently released fourth novel, shows that his writing relies on the strength and tightness of his plots. The Last Child‘s plotting was superb, and it outweighed Hart’s several flaws as a writer, such as his bombastically underwhelming prose and his over-emotive, two-dimensional characters.

Iron House, unfortunately, teeters on an unsteady premise that can’t support its own weight, and its plot delivers only mild thrills. As a result, those underlying problems become much more noticeable. Altogether, it makes for a disappointing mystery/thriller hybrid that can’t quite get off the ground.

A large part of the problem here derives from Iron House‘s setup, a discombobulating mish-mash that never gets its feet under itself. It goes like this:

Michael is the world’s best assassin. He works for a high-powered mob boss named Otto Kaitlin. He falls in love and decides to get out of the business. Kaitlin lets him go, but his son and henchmen vow to exact revenge on Michael, just as soon as the old man is dead. (Question one: If they’re going to disobey the old man’s wishes, why do they need to wait until he’s dead? Unclear.)

Kaitlin dies, and then the rest of the crime family comes after Michael. The rest of the crime family, incidentally, is irredeemably evil and mean, which I almost don’t need to say, right? And Michael is, you guessed it, kind-hearted and noble. Even though he’s an assassin. Anyway…

So Michael collects his pregnant girlfriend, holes up somewhere to wait for the evil men, and when they come he kills them, because he’s the best assassin in the world.

Wait, crap, that’s not enough material for a novel. OK, so Michael also has a … long-lost brother, who’s schizophrenic and vulnerable, and also in danger from the Kaitlins. So Michael has to go protect his brother as well. His brother happens to have been adopted by a billionaire senator, and he lives on a compound where they spend more than a million dollars on security every year.

So everything’s cool, and Michael rides off into the sunset.

Aw, hell, we still don’t have a hundred pages here. Hmm. How about this: when Michael is just about to ride off into the sunset, he discovers the dead body of a man he knew thirty years before, when he and his brother were orphans at the Iron Mountain Home for Boys. So Michael has to return to the orphanage to figure out who’s killing his brother’s childhood enemies, while protecting his brother and also his girlfriend (who is somewhat disappointed about the father of her child turning out to be a ruthless killer).

To say the least, this is not a tight plot. The chief trouble is that the two stories have nothing to do with each other, and they also have such vastly different tones and settings that the end result is a muddle of strings and knots that fall apart when they get poked.

For instance, it’s difficult to get terribly invested in one dead body found in a senator’s pond—at the same time Michael’s killing people by the dozen, without discrimination or remorse.

In the end, the two disparate pieces of the novel never braid together. The thriller storyline—the Kaitlin gang on Michael’s trail—possesses no mystery: we know what will happen when people attack the greatest assassin ever, and it happens. The mystery storyline—the bodies in the senator’s pond and what they have to do with Michael’s childhood—possesses no urgency, to the point that I had to force myself to finish the last 70 pages of this book. Plus the story’s full of holes (schizophrenia is not the same as multiple personality disorder).

All this isn’t to say that Hart doesn’t still have talent; it’s visible in stretches here and there, and he milks his material for more entertainment value than many mystery writers could have. But this runaway novel shows that he relies entirely on his plotting. I’ll be giving Hart another shot, even after this wreck, but you don’t need to read this book.

Similar reads: The Last Child, by John Hart. And the atrocious The Girl She Used to Be, at least in premise. Authors: please stop writing “thrillers” about mobsters who fall in love.