Friday, August 12, 2011

Review: IRON HOUSE by John Hart

Iron House by John Hart (John Murray, 2011)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

North Carolina attorney-turned-author John Hart has had a meteoric rise in his second career; his first novel (about a disenchanted lawyer with a failing practice who becomes a prime suspect in the murder of his father) was nominated for the Edgar Award, the ‘Oscar’ of crime writing. His second won the Edgar, and his third not only won the Edgar – making him the first author ever to win with consecutive books – but also the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association (a rare double), amongst a host of other awards.

Having read Hart’s second (Down River) and third (The Last Child – a masterpiece) novels, I can say that all the accolades were well-deserved – Hart writes character-driven crime fiction that is lush, lyrical, and layered, that soars far beyond the standard pulse-pounding, plot-based ‘airport thriller’. Not that his plots don’t hook you (they do), it’s just that he offers much more too, expertly blending the page-turning thriller tradition with emotionally engaging character studies.

Hart will be touring New Zealand later this month, in support of his just-released fourth novel, Iron House, a book where the author ramps up the helter-skelter thriller aspects without losing any of the layers and depth he’s already become famous for.

Michael is a feared New York mob enforcer. The kind of man who makes other ‘made men’ nervous when he walks into a room. But he wants out. He’s met a woman, has a baby on the way, and wants a fresh start away from his violence-filled life, past and present. An understanding with his elderly patron comes undone, and Michael finds himself on the run, returning to his childhood roots in rural North Carolina. A place from which he escaped, a teen on the run from a brutal orphanage, suspected of killing another boy. Decades later, he has to face not only his own past but that of his unstable younger brother Julian, as he tries to protect those he cares about from the gathering storm.

Put simply, Iron House is another terrific novel from Hart – the kind of crime thriller that many who don’t usually read crime or mystery would heartily enjoy. It’s as much about its rich cast of layered, authentic, and damaged characters as its captivating storyline. Hart exhibits some style as he vividly evokes not only the ‘Southern’ setting – in all its tarnished glory – but also aspects of the broader human condition. He shows that there can be plenty of thrills without having to resort to ‘world-changing’ plotlines, by simply focusing on matters that are life-and-death, spiritually or physically, for characters in their own small world.

And doing it very, very well.

You can see John Hart in person at the “Setting the Stage for Murder” event in Christchurch on 21 August, and at Takapuna Library in Auckland on 23 August. See for more details.

This review was originally published in the 12 August 2011 print edition of NZLawyer magazine, and is reprinted here with permission.


  1. Craig - Thanks for this review. I'm glad that you liked this one. It's not often that a thriller also contains deep, well-developed characters and a flowing writing style. That takes a very deft hand...

  2. I read it and loved it. It's got a lot of violence but the suspense and the mystery behind the Iron House was so interesting. I never suspected how everyone was connected.

  3. I read it and loved it couldn't put it down I was up till 1.00am last night finishing it. Can't wait till the next one - Bookman