When Matthew Quirk graduated from Harvard, the last thing he expected to be doing was rubbing elbows with reporters who were shipping off to active combat zones loaded up with bulletproof vests and $10,000 in cash. "I had studied history and literature in college and liked to do creative writing," he explained. Instead, Quirk got a job writing for The Atlantic just before the war in Iraq broke out. Covering military actions required a lot a research, but he had a knack for it. Working alongside of fellow reporters like Mark Bowden (author of Black Hawk Down and Guests of the Ayatollah), Quirk was digging up his own dirt on opium smuggling in Afghanistan and Central American gangs. He recalled, "Being at the magazine was a front row seat to all this stuff."
All that came to an end in 2008 when the economy tanked and Quirk was laid off. He was living in Fairfax, was about to turn 30, and needed a break, so he decided to ditch reporting and concentrate on his novel. "I'd been writing fiction on the side the whole time I was there,” he said, “but this was the time to really go for it." He kept his overhead low and, after a year of writing, finished The 500, a D.C.-based thriller about the machinations of a devious political consultancy called The Davies Group. Protagonist Mike Ford is a break-in-artist-turned-lawyer who specializes in safe-cracking and can’t seem to stay out of trouble despite his best attempts. The novel gambit came through, as a month before Quirk was about to get married, the publishing company Little, Brown bought the title and brought months of anticipation to a happy resolution. "It was dream,” he said, “just an unbelievable turn. I like to tell people that my real life was more suspenseful than my book."
“There are so many larger than life figures in books and movies, but when you actually talk to people who do this as their job, it's kind of astounding that they're just regular people."
Quirk’s storytelling technique is all about dropping you into some tense no-win situation, then ratcheting the stakes up to impossibly high levels. He strives for detailed accuracy, especially when it comes to device mechanics, tactical maneuvers, or other cloak-and-dagger practices. His prose is quick and punchy, peppered with dark humor, and captures decent emotional depth from what could be stock characters. That approach carries through in his second novel, The Directive. Set in the idyllic Alexandria borough of Del Ray, Mike Ford finds himself tempted away from his beautiful fiancée as he gets caught up in a scheme to rig the global financial market (under duress, of course). As Quirk puts it, "It's a story about somebody having to go back into crime to protect their nice, quiet, safe life and Del Ray was perfect for that.”
Quirk’s latest book, Cold Barrel Zero, features a new cast of characters: a shadowy network of special forces operatives gone rogue. Set in San Diego (where Quirk currently lives), there’s less of the political intrigue of his first two novels and a heck of a lot more action. Largely told from the perspective of Tom Byrne, a former Marine corpsman, the story explores some of the raw emotions that eat at a combat medic’s conscience. In fact, there’s a level of detail and brutal honesty that could make some passages difficult to read for those with a medical background, but that’s just Quirk trying to find the real people in his characters. While conducting background research, he spent time with special forces veterans and was struck by their unadorned humanity. “There are so many larger than life figures in books and movies, but when you actually talk to people who do this as their job, it's kind of astounding that they're just regular people. Like, they could be bringing deserts to the dinner party, but they just got back from some crazy combat mission." He also enrolled in an urban escape and evasion course where he learned how to break out of duct tape bindings, improvise weapons, and other useful life skills. It all goes back to Quirk wanting to do the research and get the details right. As he says, "It's always vastly more interesting than whatever clichés you have rattling around in your head."
Correction: The original version of this story mistakenly stated that Matthew Quirk conducted research for Guests of the Ayatollah. While he and the author were both reporters at The Atlantic, Quirk did not contribute to the book directly.