Monday, 22 October 2012

Book Review: The 500, by Matthew Quirk (2012)

A novel that starts smart but quickly rides a death spiral filled with over-the-top dumb action, The 500 frustrates due to unfulfilled potential. Matthew Quirk's debut flatters to deceive, establishing a promising context before throwing it all away into a pile of carnage.

Michael Ford comes from a scrappy background, his father a small-time con man who has spent years in jail. Nevertheless, Michael is blessed with a phenomenal work ethic and chooses the straight life, working his way through Harvard Law School, and landing a dream job with the Davies Group, the most powerful and secretive lobby firm in Washington DC. Michael's mentor at Davies is Marcus, an ex-CIA agent who combines persuasion with thinly veiled threats of violence. Michael is a quick study in the ways of high stakes lobbying, where every man has his price, and proves his abilities to both Marcus and firm founder Henry Davies, the puppet master with desires to control all of the 500 most powerful people in DC.

Michael is quickly promoted and has everything going for him, including a promising relationship with Annie, another rising star at the firm. Davies even helps secure parole for Michael's Dad. But Michael is then assigned to help influence the extradition case of first-class thug Rado, who may just be a blood-thirsty Serbian war criminal. The Rado case involves a luscious daughter Irin, an incorruptible Supreme Court justice, and long-lost secrets related to the Henry Davies' earliest dirty tricks. As people start getting killed, Michael finds himself in the middle of a maelstrom with links back to his own family history.

The first third of The 500 has a witty edge as Quirk delights in combining Michael Ford's con-artist sensibilities with a peeling back of Washington DC's inner secrets. Michael's early encounters with Henry Davies and the intriguing details of his first case at the firm, uncovering the pressure points needed to influence trade policy, are engaging and come across as an only slightly spiced-up version of what could be the truth.

But when Quirk amps up the wanton violence and abandons the intellect, the book runs into trouble from which it never recovers. Break-ins, multiple murders and torture take over the story, with ever increasing doses of incredulity. Quirk attempts to justify Michael's ability to thrive despite the sudden plunge into a world of brutality by having him fall back repeatedly on the tricks of the con-man's trade, but it doesn't wash. Nor does the hands-on approach that Marcus and Henry Davies deploy in spilling blood hold up to any serious scrutiny.

The 500 ends with dead bodies literally piled high in Washington DC, a laughable climax that would be fun as satire. Instead, it's a sad ending to a wasted effort.

326 pages.
Published in hardcover by Little, Brown and Company.

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