Book Review: Alligator Alley by Mike Lawson

In Mike Lawson's Alligator Alley, a young man working in the DOJ’s Inspector General’s Office is murdered in Florida’s Everglades, and it's up to bagman Joe DeMarco to get to the bottom of things. Read on for Janet Webb's review!

After I raced through Alligator Alley and discovered that it was Mike Lawson’s 16th Joe DeMarco thriller, I experienced a wave of FOMO *Fear Of Missing Out*. The characters are unforgettable—from Democratic House Speaker John Mahoney (an old-school Boston pol in the Tip O’Neill tradition); Mahoney’s longtime troubleshooter, Joe DeMarco; Henry Cantor, upright Inspector General at the Department of Justice, military hero, and Medal of Honor recipient; to enigmatic and uber-capable ex-spy Emma: I want all their backstories. It’s not necessary to have read the earlier fifteen DeMarco thrillers in order to appreciate Alligator Alley. Here’s a link to the first chapter.

A phrase that’s much in the news—“crooked, near-retirement FBI agents”—fits  agents McIntyre and McGruder perfectly. Friends since their days at Quantico, they are fishing buddies with a yen to live the good life in retirement, if only their retirement financing stretched to a big ocean-going boat and a condo on the water. With the help of their longtime friend, former FBI agent turned government lawyer Patricia “Patty” McHugh, (a woman with deep expertise in fraud investigations), the two Mac’s decided to help themselves to the stolen assets of a pair of crooks. Their job was to bring Lenny and Estelle Berman to justice for defrauding the elderly patients in their nursing home but McIntyre and McGruder made a complete botch of the investigation. So much so that Inspector General Henry Cantor sent young Andie Moore to Florida to dig into why. 

The Everglades—at midnight—was the last place twenty-three-year old Andie Moore wanted to be.

There was only a pale half-moon providing any light, and she could barely see where she was walking. She was also terrified of snakes and alligators, and there was no doubt that there were alligators all around her.

Andie is following four people, “praying they wouldn’t spot her,” knowing full well her boss, Henry Cantor, wants her to keep a low profile.

The four people were all thieves. There was Lenny Berman and his wife, Estelle, and two men named McIntyre and McGruder. The Bermans were in their forties, small, dark, and sleek; they made Andie think of two-legged ferrets. McIntyre and McGruder were big, beefy white guys. They were over six feet tall, over fifty, and overweight. There wasn’t anything sleek about them at all, but that didn’t make them any less dangerous.

Andie knows Henry Cantor is right—that she is “risking her life.” But she’s as fresh as paint, half flash/half foolish and determined to capture the corrupt FBI agents in the act. In place of a gun, Andie has her iPhone—she videotapes the execution of the Bermans. 

She stopped the video, praying that the iPhone had at least captured the sound of the gunshots and the flashes of light. Now what she had to do was get away without being seen, or she’d end up as dead as Lenny and Estelle.

Fatal last thoughts. Andie trips, the agents hear her, chase her through the dark, and after a heated discussion beside her car, where it seems like she’s convinced them to cut her in on the spoils, McIntyre shoots “Andie Moore twice in the heart.” Henry Cantor is heartsick—Andie reminded him of his grand-daughter, who also died before her time. He pleads with Speaker Mahoney to avenge Andie’s death.

I interview all the people I hire personally, and I asked her why she wanted to work for me. It’s certainly not a glamorous job. She told me that for people to trust their government, the government has to be trustworthy and honest—and she wanted to be one of the people who kept it honest.

Cantor requests an independent investigation i.e., no FBI. He says, “I think an FBI agent might have killed her.” Henry Cantor asks for Mahoney’s top operatives, recalling an earlier case, “—there was a woman named Emma involved. I would like her and Mr. DeMarco to look into Andie’s murder.” Emma (no last name, just like McIntyre and McGruder don’t have first names) reminds me of the recently retired female operatives in Deanna Raybourn’s Killers of a Certain Age. She’s frighteningly competent and bossy: DeMarco doesn’t get a chance to catch his breath, let alone play a few rounds of golf. They make a great team. DeMarco may appear to be a slouch compared to Emma, but he understands the criminal mind. 

Alligator Alley is a master class in how not to clean up crime scenes. There’s no end to the mistakes made by McIntyre and McGruder. They try sprinkling a little disinformation on Andie Moore’s death scene but quickly decide discretion is the better part of valor and take off to the Florida Keys. Emma’s top phone guy (she has endless security folks at her disposal) tracks them down. DeMarco confronts them, demands they cut him in and the two bunglers, after disingenuously saying yes, decide to take him out of the picture, permanently. DeMarco doesn’t understand them—they’re so ordinary.

They were lazy, unambitious, and indifferent to their jobs, a couple of guys who just liked to drink and fish. In some ways, they weren’t a whole lot different from him. How on earth had they become cold-blooded killers? Fifteen million dollars was a hell of an incentive, but DeMarco sensed that McIntyre and McGruder probably had to be pushed into committing murder—and he wondered who it was that did the pushing.

We’re getting into spoiler territory. DeMarco’s prescient ruminations are right on the money. Alligator Alley is fast-paced, humorous, chilling, and vividly accurate. Not for a minute does it seem like Mike Lawson’s 16th DeMarco thriller is straying into fictional fantasy. I can’t wait to go back to the beginning, when Speaker Mahoney and his fixer troubleshooter DeMarco, began their partnership. 

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