They say you should never judge a book by its cover. Or in the case of John Hart’s Iron House, it might be more appropriate to say you should never judge a book by its cover blurb and marketing campaign.
Hailed as one of the best books of the summer, it’d be easy to assume that the story would follow the usual tropes of the action/mystery/thriller genre. A hitman for the mob meets a beautiful woman, falls in love and wants to get out of the game. He’s granted permission by the dying patriarch of the family, but his son doesn’t want to let him go. When our hitman hero finally helps the older patriarch shuffle off this mortal coil, the son decides he has to take out our hero and his new lady love to maintain his hold on power.
On the surface it sounds like something familiar, but Hart wisely uses this springboard to make Iron House something far more interesting and far more compelling. Turns out our hero Michael and his brother Julian were orphans, raised in a brutal orphanage called the Iron House. At a young age, Julian showed a violent streak and when that lead to Julian killing a bully, Michael realized Julian couldn’t survive the punishment to come and took the blame. Julian was adopted by a wealthy senator and his wife while Michael went to prison before eventually being taken in by the mob boss.
The mob decides to target Julian as well as Michael and the girlfriend. Michael sets out to protect his brother but in doing so, he uncovers some secrets about his past.
I’ll admit I was skeptical when I heard all the praise heaped on this book and while I was eager to begin enjoying it, part of me wasn’t sure it could live up to the hype. Those fears quickly vanished as I found myself pulled into this world and into one of the best thrillers I’ve read not only this year but in many years. Hart’s emphasis on characters is on full display here and while you may not necessarily like everything or everyone in this book, Hart makes sure you’ll understand the motivations of each character as well as the way they became the person they are today. This is especially true in the character of the Elena, who starts out the novel ready to dismiss Michael from her life due to his past and his connection to violence but who we see slowly coming to accept that who Michael is at his core is a good man she fell in love with. (To say much more ruins some of her character arc, which you really have to experience to truly appreciate).
I’ve read Hart’s other novels and while they were good, they only hinted at what was to come. With Iron House he not only lives up to the promise of those early books, but he exceeds it. The last half of the novel builds at such an intensity and pace that you may find it next to impossible to put it aside to do other things.
If you’re looking for a great thriller that will not only entertain but also works on a emotional level, this is the one.