John Hart's latest story, "Iron House," opens on a young boy running for his life through snow-filled woods. He is covered with blood, and he carries a knife, but he cannot stop for help because he knows that whatever is after him wants him dead.
Then we flash forward 25 years. The frightened boy has become Michael, a handsome, well-dressed professional killer. He is in bed with a beautiful Spanish girl named Elena, but he cannot sleep, knowing that the two men in the car parked on the street below his apartment window are there to kill him.
Michael and his younger and more fragile brother, Julian, had lived on the streets, with no parents and no home. When they were 10 and 9, they found themselves in a home for unwanted children, a horrible place high in the North Carolina mountains, known as the Iron House. Beatings were commonplace, and weak boys like Julian were often victimized. Michael defended him as much as he could, but he was outnumbered.
After one such assault, Julian stabbed his attacker in the neck; Michael took the blame and ran away.
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While he is missing, a woman arrives and says she wants to adopt them. She finally gives up waiting for Michael, and takes Julian home. She is, turns out, married to a very wealthy U.S. senator and wants only to give Julian all the love and protection he so badly needs.
Michael, meanwhile, is still on the streets when an older man rescues him. His name is Otto Kaitlin, and he not only treats the boy like a son but teaches him all he knows. What he knows, unfortunately, is illegal. Kaitlin is the most feared crime boss in New York, and under his guidance Michael becomes an accomplished killer.
Then he falls in love with Elena, and when he learns she is pregnant, he tells Kaitlin he wants to quit. But Michael knows too much to live. He takes Elena with him and heads South, but when he tells her the truth about his life, she leaves him.
She is the only person who gives meaning to his life, and he is determined to find her, even if it means confronting the men who want only to see him dead. At this point we are less than a quarter of the way through a complex thriller that attempts to turn a seasoned murderer into somebody you are supposed to root for -- and almost pulls it off.
An editor I once worked for said he didn't care if Hitler had a miserable childhood; that nothing could justify his crimes.
Author Hart has the same problem. Michael is a better person than the men who want to destroy him, but that doesn't exactly make him Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy.
This is an ambitious novel and contains many twists and surprises before it is over, and if you don't exactly root for Michael, you do come to an understanding of why he turned out as he did. The story takes us deep into the background of Hart's main characters -- the senator, his beautiful but troubled wife, her longtime lover who hides many secrets, a girl whose unkempt appearance cannot hide her beauty, a bitter old woman with some explosive secrets of her own.
I have been an admirer of Hart's writing ever since I reviewed his first novel, "The King of Lies," ("as compelling as anything I've read in a long time"). A native of Salisbury, N.C., he worked as a bartender and a banker before getting his law degree. He was doing very well as a lawyer when he decided to ignore the advice of concerned friends and give up law to write full time. This is his fourth novel.
The New York Times calls this "his best book yet," but I'm not sure I agree. "Iron House" is an ambitious and well-written tale, but in trying to make a hero out of someone who has murdered a dozen or more men, he may be expecting too much from his audience.
Still, this is the book he wanted to write, and it does give him the opportunity to explore some of the less attractive aspects of Southern life, so maybe he's earned the right to dig under some old rocks and report on what he found. So carry on, Mr. Hart, but next time out could you give us somebody we can admire as much as we admire his author?