Terrified and Exhilarated and Desperate

May 17, 2016   •   By Chris Holm

I MET MATTHEW QUIRK at a Long Beach ale house in 2014. We were both in town for the World Mystery Convention, Bouchercon, and the event would’ve been a basic drinks-with-your-publisher sort of deal if it hadn’t been my first. I was the new guy. Quirk, a rising star. His debut novel, The 500, was an international phenomenon and a New York Times best seller. Its follow-up, The Directive, had recently been released to rave reviews. I’d read neither, so I told myself keeping quiet was my best strategy.

Fate had other plans. Within moments of sitting down, we became embroiled in the kind of conversation only crime writers seem to have: freewheeling, riotous, and inappropriate enough to make our fellow patrons look askance at us. Quirk was passionate, inquisitive, and dangerously quick-witted. By the time the tab was settled, I knew I had to read his books. 

They didn’t disappoint. His Mike Ford novels — The 500 and The Directive — are a master class in voice, and damn thrilling to boot. His latest — Cold Barrel Zero — is the first in a new series, and may be his best book yet. Eschewing the everyman style on which he made his name, Quirk delves deep into the world of international terror and covert operations, and writes with such authority you half expect his prose to be riddled with redactions. The action dazzles. The characters feel authentic and fully fleshed. The threats seem all too real.

Recently, Quirk and I chatted via email about his books, bad haircuts, and dinosaur doodles.

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CHRIS HOLM: While they’re all gripping thrillers, each of your novels explores a different milieu. The 500 is a political thriller that unfolds inside the Beltway. The Directive is a high-stakes heist novel centered on the Federal Reserve. Cold Barrel Zero is a black-ops military thriller that hearkens back to the adrenalized action movies of the ’80s. What attracts you to the idea of playing in a lot of different sandboxes? Do you find that working in a variety of subgenres allows you to explore different fascinations, different themes?

MATTHEW QUIRK: It’s all by happenstance, really, chasing down ideas and settings that grab me for the next book, which often means pulling back the curtain on a hidden world. I like to report for the books, so it lets me go knock on doors and talk to spies or SEALs or private military contractors or whoever, all these people who have unbelievable stories and whose professions looms so large in our fictional imaginations. As far as theme, I often find that there is some fascinating core tension at the heart of these arenas, like the intelligence agent who has to earn trust in order to betray it, or the medic who in rare cases has to kill in order to save lives.

What do you see as the unifying characteristics of a Matthew Quirk novel?

I’m always shooting for a plot that really snares the reader from page one, a fast pace, and a continuous escalation of stakes. I like to have characters face near-impossible moral choices, too. And I dig in on the line-by-line writing, aiming for prose that’s spare but still affecting without being too writerly.

And, in somewhat of a surprise to me, I love writing action scenes. I was a not especially macho reporter in DC and started out writing books that were very closely observed about politics and the real world I knew well. Thinking about raising stakes often led naturally to these action sequences, and I was relieved when readers and critics responded positively to them. I’ll write something and think, “Whoa. That’s pretty intense. Where the hell did that come from?”

I’ve touched on intelligence and military elements in all of the books, but those were subplots. It took a while to have the confidence to set a book entirely in a world, like special operations, where people are faced with life and death choices as a matter of course.

Cold Barrel Zero is dedicated to your father, Commander R. Gregory Quirk, USN (Ret.). How much of a responsibility did you feel to capture the experience of the men and women who serve when you sat down to write it?

I was very concerned about getting it right, out of respect to the military and because I was writing about a world I hadn’t lived in for the first time.

The Navy was a big part of my dad’s life, but he doesn’t really come off as a “military” guy. Nor did I have any Great Santini stuff going on in my upbringing, except for one ill-fated high and tight he got me at the base barber when I was a little kid. The lesson I took away is that servicemen and women have as wide a variety of experience and personalities as everyone else, something which tends to get lost in fictional treatments of the military as being all gritty tough guys with tons of baggage.

I got to know a few special operations guys over the past few years, and it wasn’t until then that I felt comfortable trying a book like this. That helps unlock the people I was writing about as characters, instead of walking myths from TV and film.

There was a surprising turn as I was reporting. I sought out these military personnel because I was determined to make everything super accurate, and they were the ones who reminded me that in the end, this is fiction, and I can’t, and wouldn’t want to, make it perfectly realistic. I was talking to a SEAL Senior Chief about combat diving missions like the one in the book (which I still can’t believe people actually do), and he told me to get the details right, and not have any overly corny Hollywood stuff, but that it would be fine if the stakes and heroes were a little larger than life. That’s what these books are for. It was an odd instance where more reporting led me away from strict verisimilitude.

You’re not afraid to roll up your sleeves in the name of research. Any crazy stories you’d care to share?

I am afraid! But that’s the point, to go do these terrifying things so I can do a good job writing about them. For this one, I signed up for SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) training in Los Angeles with an outfit that works with different military units, including some of the elite ones. We learned how to pick locks, break out of handcuffs, set up disguises, and evade surveillance. It culminated in an all-day field exercise where we were kidnapped at the beginning and left hooded and handcuffed in the back of a van in LA. We had to break out, then use the skills we’d learned to make our way through the city without money or phones while a bunch of Special Forces and Marine veterans in vans hunted us down. If they found us, they would handcuff us to a fence and leave us there. I picked up a ton of technical material, but the mindset stuff was the best being equal parts terrified and exhilarated and desperate all day.

Cold Barrel Zero is chock full of cool tradecraft, weaponry, and next-level tech — some of which I’m sure the government would prefer folks didn’t know about. How’d you pull it off? What was the coolest thing you stumbled across while researching this book? What was the scariest?

I had a former thief as a protagonist in the first two books, so I spent a lot of time talking to people who are into physical security and lock picking, and for the heist book I worked with “red teams,” people who get hired to break into secure facilities to test their defenses. They’re often ex-military, which led me to the classified tools that are only available to US intelligence and military. That’s how I found out about the urban escape and evasion class, too.

My favorite gadget is a real one. Certain agencies and military teams have a universal skeleton key device that I describe in the book. I haven’t seen any other public mention of it, so that was fun to include. There is actually more open-source information on classified military and intelligence operations than there is good material on how criminals do their work.

The scariest thing that came up, scarier than getting kidnapped or stun-gunned, was giving the manuscript to some special operations guys to check out. There was no greater relief, and I was really honored, when I heard back from them that they liked it and took it on deployment and passed it around the platoon.

In Cold Barrel Zero, it feels as if you’ve expanded your palette. Unlike The 500 and The Directive, the narrative largely unfolds in the third person. The stakes are enormous. The action is epic and inventive. Did you encounter any unexpected challenges telling a story of this scope? Was this book as much fun to write as it was to read?

I had been defeated by a book like this before, when I was just starting out. It was a manuscript I never published (for the best) that led to someone I very much respected in publishing sending me a note that included the line: “Thrillers should thrill.” Ouch!

Doing a story that spans continents and involves a technically detailed world like special operations was pretty intimidating, and led me to do a ton of homework and reporting.

The most challenging aspect, especially given that the “voice” of the first book helped it break out, was to step away from relying on the charisma of a single first-person narrator to guide (and occasionally distract) the reader. I had to trust the story to draw people in, keep them engaged, and make them feel without being able to steer them as I had in the past. I disappear, in a sense — a topic I’d been fascinated by since reading the Rhetoric of Fiction in college.

It forces a lot more discipline, but in the end I love the understated punch it gives to the suspense and twists and emotional turns. I also hewed less to an outline on this one, and one of the twists came to me very, very late in the writing, so there were a few scary Hail Mary moments where I wasn’t sure if it would all work.

You spent five years at The Atlantic, covering such unsavory topics as terrorism, gangs, and the shadowy world of private military contractors. How much does that inform your writing?

It was an incredible education and it’s the well I draw from every day. I’m so grateful to have had a chance to work at The Atlantic and as a reporter in DC. It allows me to ground the larger-than-life plots of thrillers in the reality of how they would occur at a relatable, human level, and hopefully get away from some of the Hollywood stuff.

Were you always a fan of thrillers, or was it your day job that tipped your writing in that direction?

I grew up on thrillers. I remember writing Michael Crichton a fan letter when I was nine, and I still have the letter he wrote back, with some early sketches of the velociraptors for the film version of Jurassic Park. In college I tried literary fiction for a while, but then I landed the Atlantic job. Being around war correspondents and having a front-row seat to political intrigue in DC led me back to the high-stakes, plot-driven stories I’d always loved.

Action thrillers (says one action thriller writer to another) aren’t exactly known for subtlety and nuance. But your novels — all of them — are character-driven tales that explore thorny moral quandaries without sacrificing thrills. Do you find it difficult to strike that balance? Have you ever gotten pushback from readers?

Thanks! Fortunately, I find readers want a balance. There are better, more strongly visual media for straight action than books (first-person shooters, comic books, movies) and in novels you are not only watching and listening to these characters, you’re in their heads with their thoughts and perceptions. So I’ve found that people demand depth of character right along with their action set pieces. It’s a high bar, but a challenge I enjoy because it’s the characters that draw me in.

I love how universal action is, too, and I think you can make it as smart and sophisticated as you like and still scratch that atavistic itch. We all have some basic instincts that make us root for the good guy to take down the bad guy. I know no one, for instance, who doesn’t like the Bourne movies, and know plenty of Coexist-sticker types who will happily tuck in with Jack Reacher for a few hours of bare-knuckles vigilantism.

What’s next for you?

I’m in deep on the follow-up to Cold Barrel Zero. The plot revolves around someone hunting down American special operations personnel where they live stateside, a particularly chilling threat that terror groups have raised recently.

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Chris Holm is the author of the The Killing Kind, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Boston Globe Best Book of 2015, and Strand Magazine’s #1 Book of 2015.