Matthew Quirk’s first novel carves its title from a cultural cliche: that there is “a list of the five hundred people inside the Beltway with real power, the select who [run] Washington and, by extension, the country.” That conceit has more in common with Facebook lists of the Greatest Rock Guitarists or Hollywood’s Hottest Superstars than with the chaos in which things get done in this country. But millions of Americans accept the cliche as true, and Quirk, a former writer for the Atlantic, has cleverly constructed his novel upon it.
“The 500” begins with a gun-waving confrontation and a thrilling timeline of flashbacks. Mike Ford, a freshly minted Harvard law grad with a complicated past, jumps at the chance to move to Washington and work for “a high-end strategic consulting firm” that’s far more powerful and influential than a mere bunch of lobbyists or K Street lawyers. This is the Davies Group, which thinks of itself “less as a business and more as a secret society or shadow government.” It represents clients such as Rado, a Serbian criminal mastermind called the King of Hearts “because, well, he ate people’s hearts.”
With clients like that, it’s only a question of how many pages you need to turn before Mike confronts a crisis that threatens to get him killed.
Mike tells his story in the first person, a device that works especially well because it allows the reader to discover the town along with the hero. And because that town is Washington, many readers will feel the pleasure of having fiction validate their view of how things really work here.
Such validation is enhanced because this novel gets so many things right that Washington-based novels written via Google often get wrong: the geography, creative but realistic violence, and the subtle mechanics of “this brothel of a town,” where six different government agencies have a part in making public policy that can still come down to the capricious nature of one nameless, faceless bureaucrat.
Quirk disappoints, however, when he abandons his journalistic experience to create mega-conspiracies and characters behaving as no one does in real life: the D.C. cop who investigates federal political corruption, for example, or the Supreme Court justice who mounts a lone-wolf secret investigation against an evil genius and then abandons the safety of the heavily guarded court to go solo to his country house with a shotgun and wait for the homicidal bad guys to show up.
Quirk writes solid prose that at times shines: “Ego poured through the room like central air.” But through Mike, he also indulges in risky and annoying chatter to the reader: “Still awake? Bravo.” And “Having fun?”
His fictional model seems to be John Grisham’s “The Firm”: A brilliant young lawyer accepts the perfect job only to find he’s serving evil that might destroy him, and the only people he can trust are family members he must put at risk. This comparison holds for more than half of Quirk’s book.
After that, the novel’s over-calculated construction becomes a burden that crushes surprise and makes you care less about the characters. Time and time again, Mike overcomes challenges because of his past as a juvenile delinquent, or his legacy of being a con man’s son, or because someone he hasn’t seen for years still keeps weapons and burglary tools where Mike noticed them as a teenager. The novel does too much explaining, and too many people know too much or not enough because Everything Must Fit. In the end, what might have been the sleek story of a conflicted hero battling for his skin and soul becomes an overburdened saga of a superhero trying to save the world from a megalomaniac who seeks to dominate it.
Quirk is a proven journalist and a fine writer with, presumably, other novels to come. But for his fiction debut, one cliche he should have embraced is that sometimes less is more.
Grady is a Washington novelist, journalist and screenwriter.
By Matthew Quirk
Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown. 326 pp. $25.99