THE 500, by Matthew Quirk. Reagan Arthur Books / Little, Brown & Co., 326 pp., $25.99.
'The 500" arrives in both digital and analog bookstores draped in the bling of what's been called a "major motion picture deal." Hard to imagine that Hollywood cares that much about corrupt Washington, D.C., power brokers in the din of a summer movie season of vampires, superheroes and fairy-tale queens. But the way this ripping yarn springs and snaps along like a row of wolf traps makes you see why all that money's raining down on Matthew Quirk's first novel.
Then, too, there are strong aspects of the prototypical Marvel superhero and super-villain in, respectively, Mike Ford, a onetime apprentice grifter turned Harvard-educated lawyer on the fast track in a high-end D.C. consulting firm, and Henry Davies, the firm's glowering namesake and fixer-in-chief who recognizes in Mike a shared acknowledgment that "every man has a price."
Davies plucks Mike straight out of law school and into what the latter describes as not a lobbying outfit so much "as a secret society or shadow government" with clientele in the thin-air reaches of political, judicial and corporate elites.
Nevertheless, given Mike's acquaintance with the dark art of the con, he finds his shady busywork with the Davies Group -- finagling tax loopholes, shaking down legislators, faking out bureaucracies -- to be a glossier version of the kind of lowlife chicanery that almost landed him in prison. The dividends of this newer, better life are many: cushy digs, the inevitable smoking-hot-whip-smart girlfriend and up-close-and-personal access to the powerful.
If you're up on your John Grisham, you know this can't last long. And it doesn't. Mike quickly stumbles into a fetid quagmire involving a Serbian war criminal, his sultry daughter and a Supreme Court justice whose morals aren't as pliant as Davies would like. This discovery prompts Mike toward a few lines he won't cross, either. Unfortunately for him, that means he'll have to cross Davies and his goon squad -- and he's not the only one who'll get seriously, permanently damaged in the process.
A lot of very good writers step into the thriller game so intent on making an impression that they try to thicken their mixtures with shallow but wordy psychological insights or grander-than-needed literary flourishes. But Quirk, who made his name reporting on high crimes and misdemeanors for The Atlantic, shows little interest in wasting his time or yours. For the most part, he handles the controls of this machine with minimal fuss and a light touch. You enjoy the sound of Mike's narrative as much for its laid-back wisecracks as for the sidelong bits of inside baseball. Here's a passage that delivers both:
"Fun fact: senators and congressmen, the guys nominally running the country, typically have no idea what's going on. They spend all their time begging donors for money to get re-elected, schmoozing, and flying back home to officiate pig races at state fairs. Walking haircuts, they rely on their party bosses and an army of aides -- socially challenged ex-debate-team nerds -- to tell them what to think. Their lives are blocked out in ten-minute increments, and assistants constantly steer them like brain-injury victims from event to event."
OK, so it's nothing you either didn't already suspect or couldn't have guessed on your own. It's still a nice nugget to store in your head while taking in an hour of CNN.
There are, however, more useful things you can learn from "The 500" that have nothing to do with politics. Ever hear of "ninja rocks"? Me, neither. But Mike has. They're these "shattered sparkplug ceramic" pebbles that you use as a quieter means of breaking-and-entering. "Light as a handful of peanuts," he says, but if you toss them at a window, "the ceramic will shatter the glass as surely as a heaved cinder block." Other quips disclose what Quirk learned in his day-job reporting on business espionage: "The corporate spy's motto: leave no trace, but save your receipts."
Even this much fun stuff leaves you wondering if someone as brawny and resourceful as Mike Ford has enough nuance and substance to sustain more than one book. Or why an otherwise breezy plot descends into a welter of gratuitous sadism and gore. But you still walk away from "The 500" hoping that Quirk will lean less on the blood and guts next time and share more of the wit and cunning underlying his first big score.