North Carolina author John Hart is one of the legal eagles of writing, a lawyer who turned his hand to authoring a novel that proved so popular he is able to now write full time.

Therefore it was no surprise to pick up The King of Lies, Hart’s New York Times bestselling debut, and find its protagonist to be . . .wait for it!. . . a lawyer.  BookPage called Hart “Rookie of the Year” when the novel was published, and he’s gone on to write two others, which no doubt you’ll find in these pages down the road. But I prefer to read a writer as he writes his book, to gauge the growth of his or her craft, and to follow the lives of recurring characters, if there are any.

I read an article where he credited his wife with reading and early draft and telling him he had no story. Hart certainly heard her. “The King of Lies” turns out to be Ezra Pickens, a fabulously wealthy Southern lawyer of the domineering kind who give that coterie a bad name. Ezra disappeared years ago, after his wife’s suspicious death. The protagonist is his lawyer son, Jackson Workman Pickens, known to all as “Work,” a sobriquet that is especially ironic since work is one thing Work is soon to be out of. Inheriting his father’s failing law practice, Work is caught in a loveless marriage to a distant wife who married his name and heritage instead of the man himself.  Work’s estranged sister, Jean, who bore the brunt of their father’s wrath, becomes a pivotal character once Ezra’s body turns up.

Set to inherit is father’s fortune, Work becomes the prime suspect in his father’s murder. That’s the setup, but then things get interesting. Throw in a hungry female detective striving to advance, who’s certain Work is guilty. Add an overpowering partner for the bruised Jean who hates Work. Up the ante with evidence all pointing to Work, the whispers and rumors of a small town, and don’t forget the seemingly homeless park walker who strolls around town, long coat flapping at his heels, oblivious to its inhabitants, but observant just the same. All of this elevates The King of Lies from the usual mystery to a terrific whodunit, with a clear-eyed story of love and hate that will keep you turning pages.

The suspense is there, as is the family saga that unfolds. Hart’s prose is lyrical and lush, at times poetic, but he manages to stop short of becoming overdone. The climax was one that was truly built up to, one I didn’t see written on the wall. This is great first novel, one Pat Conroy says: “Reads like a book on fire.” I quite agree.

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