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Ahh! This book brings back some memories! It was the first book I ever swapped on book lover's website Read it Swap it... although for some reason, it then took me over five years to get around to actually reading it! Happily, it was worth the wait.
I'd never heard of either author Mike Lawson nor his hero Joe DeMarco, a "fixer" for the Speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington DC who does the dirty work the Speaker needs to get done, but can't be seen to be involved with. In The Inside Ring DeMarco is tasked with investigating an assassination attempt on the President's life, which claimed the life of his friend, a best-selling popular author. Specifically, DeMarco is asked to find out whether The Speaker's arch-enemy Pat Donnelly, Head of the Secret Service, had anything to do with the incident.
If I'm completely honest, I'm not absolutely sure why I enjoyed The Inside Ring so much. Certainly, it's a perfectly competent and entertaining thriller, but it never really goes beyond that. There's nothing particularly innovative about it and the plot proceeds exactly as you would expect, with lots of revelations about key characters and hidden pasts with plenty of crosses, double-crosses and danger.
The plot is not even that complex (although an interesting development towards the end is likely to catch most people off-guard). Indeed, one of the central "mysteries" of the plot is going to be instantly worked out by anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of a pretty major event in US politics.
On the other hand, that slight predictability and lack of originality works in the book's favour. Because it doesn't try to be too clever or to bamboozle the reader with constant plot twists, it is insanely readable. I think I read this coming off the back of one of the Bourne books which, enjoyable though they are, are insanely complex at times. Perhaps The Inside Ring was just a welcome antidote to all that complexity, relying on a fast pace and regular plot development to keep the reader interested.
Lawson proves to be an excellent writer, keeping things zipping along at just the right speed and complementing this with a highly readable style. He doesn't provide lots of descriptive passages, since these would slow the pace down, but nor does he concentrate on plot alone, (which, as readers of James Patterson's recent books will attest leaves a book feeling shallow). Instead, he keeps an excellent balance. Where some background information is needed to provide some context or explain something, he provides it. If the situation is self-explanatory then he doesn't feel the need to fill extra pages with long, unnecessary descriptions.
Lawson adopts the same approach for his characters, providing the reader with enough information to make them feel real, without going overboard. Inevitably (it wouldn't be a modern thriller otherwise) DeMarco has his personal issues and hang-ups, but in fairness, these are similar to the ones we all have. Unlike Lawson doesn't feel the need to burden him with additional problems like drug or alcohol dependency which often add little to the plot. His problems are more personal and whilst they sometimes impact on his attitude to his work, they do not rule it.
The same is true of the other characters. They are not paper-thin ciphers, merely there to do whatever the plot demands of them, but neither does Lawson feel the need to tell us what they had for breakfast in April 1973 to show what complete creations they are. Instead, we find out as much as we need to about each character when we need to, together with the odd bit of extra information that helps them feel like a bit more "real". We also find out some of the extra information about them gradually, which adds to the sense of suspense and supports the thriller element of the book.
On the downside, once the book moves out of the pressure cooker of Washington and DeMarco's attention shifts to Georgia, things drop down a gear. Although still interesting, I didn't find this section as much fun to read as the opening. It's here that actual physical danger takes over from the more interesting political intrigue that precedes it. By the admission of the author himself (via his character) DeMarco is not really cut out for an action hero role and is less convincing in this second section, which relies more on coincidence and good luck to get the hero out of danger and is less satisfying and not as convincing.
This section also suffers from a slightly racist view of southerners. To a man (and woman), they are all walking stereotypes of your typical Georgian. The more characters are introduced, the more the clichés pile up. I did find this stereotypical approach to the characters to be rather uncomfortable and they seemed to represent a typical "civilised" American's view of what people in the Deep South are like, rather than being based on reality or informed opinion.
The Inside Ring is a fast-paced, interesting thriller. It might not be the most innovative or startlingly original book on the market, but it's fun to read - and in my eyes, that's much more important than something which reinvents the genre, but is dull. It's a disposable book (I read it a while ago and, re-reading this review prior to posting it, I can't remember too many firm details about it), but sometimes that's A Good Thing.
The Inside Ring
Harper Collins, 2006
© Copyright SWSt 2012