- - Friday, July 6, 2012

THE 500
By Matthew Quirk
Reagan Arthur/Little Brown, $25.99 326 pages

In the course of this debut thriller, Mike Ford, the hero, is shot, stabbed, burned, choked, clubbed and almost drowned, decapitated and defenestrated. Yet, there he is, on the last page, still standing. It’s enough to bring joy to the hearts of Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) or Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), none of whom, tough as they are, would last for more than the first reel in the Washington world of Mike Ford.

Hardly your typical Harvard Law graduate, Ford is rescued from a whirlpool of debt - $83,359 owed to a rapacious debt-collection firm and a cool $160,000 to Harvard - by a job offer from Henry Davies, the most powerful man in Washington, who runs the most powerful “consulting” firm, the Davies Group. Zap, no more debt, and all Mike Ford must give in exchange is his soul.

Initially, he’s blinded by the challenges of his work, which makes the first year in a major D.C. law firm look like a stroll through Rock Creek Park. And then there are the perks: the Davies Group “… gave each new initiate an office, a secretary and a paycheck for forty-six hundred dollars every other week.” They send movers to pack up his apartment in Cambridge, put him up in the corporate apartment on Connecticut Avenue, and when he foolishly tries to run his own personal errands, his secretary - “a petite Hungarian so tiny, neat and efficient that I half suspected she was a robot” - scolds him as she takes over.

However, nice as the money and the extras are, “You had to find the work … You had six months, maybe a year, to prove your worth to the company, or you were gone. No one taught you how to do it.” Results are all that matter; no one questions your methods and certainly not your ethics.

Fortunately for Ford, he is well-acquainted with ethical dilemmas. His father, a born con man, is serving a 16-year prison sentence, and as a youth Mike stepped across the line himself, but was pulled back by a sympathetic judge who cut him a break, without which he’d never have straightened up and flown right to Harvard.

So the nature of the work does not bother him. At first.

Eventually, he rebels and goes off the reservation, where he learns that both his immediate boss and Henry Davies himself “will stop at nothing” to get what they want, which is money for the immediate boss and supreme behind-the-scenes power for Davies over “the 500,” the group of special insiders who actually run Washington, D.C., all of its major institutions and all three branches of government .

At that point, about halfway through the novel, the chase is on, and it takes the reader on a cavalcade of crises, not all of which are covered by a willing suspension of disbelief. However, as Arthur Krystal wrote in a recent New Yorker magazine article, “Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail. It’s plot we want and plenty of it.” Matthew Quirk, an investigative writer for the Atlantic for five years, is strong on plot (especially the convoluted variety) which will get many, but not all, readers over certain leaps of logic.

Alas, there are a few mistakes regarding the geography of the Washington, D.C., area, a cardinal sin to sharp-eyed local residents, that diminish the reader’s pleasure. For example, I’m quite sure the British Embassy is not “another monster Georgetown estate” and equally sure you can’t “crest the hill on 24th Street” and see “the city laid out below us.” Finally, when you head west on Route 66 you do not eventually see “the Shenandoah Mountains.” First you see the Blue Ridge, and then, once past the Shenandoah National Park you notice the Massanutten Range, to the west of which lie the Alleghany Mountains.

Another staple of books like this is characterization, and while Mr. Quirk presents the good guys quite believably, the bad guys are a bit too bad to be true. For example, would Henry Davies, the baddest of the bad (except for his war-criminal client), really say, “I own the capital … I’ve collected every powerful man and woman in it like baseball cards … for all intents and purposes, I am the government, all the power with all the [b.s.] that goes with actually running it. Who has time for details?”

One of the reasons we read thrillers is for the inside information, the cool stuff that we straight types never knew before. There is a very great amount of it in “The 500,” and, as far as I can tell, it’s accurate. And it serves the author’s purpose well. This is not to say, as the publisher does through several blurbs, that this is another “The Firm,” John Grisham’s blockbuster that was also set in Washington.

As summertime-vacation-beach reading this book is a good one, and it will probably make you keep your eye out for Matthew Quirk’s next book, which I strongly suspect will also feature the same indestructible hero. Or, to put it another way, I’ll bet there’s a Mike Ford in your future.

• John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.