Up Close: Matthew Quirk

Mock Assassinations and Political Conspiracy

By K. L. Romo

In HOUR OF THE ASSASSIN, author Matthew Quirk spins a tale of murder, betrayal, political greed, and conspiracy, inspired by stories he covered as a reporter for The Atlantic.

Former Secret Service agent Nick Averose knows that “assassination is a tense, sweaty business.” It’s his job.

After serving 10 years as a Secret Service agent in the West Wing detail, Nick is now a private security consultant who poses as an assassin to identify security weaknesses for high-profile government individuals. Because the Washington elite know that Nick “can get to anyone,” he’s the perfect person to frame for a murder that takes place during his security audit of the former CIA director.

High-powered senator Sam MacDonough has been a “golden boy” his entire life and is now on a fast-track for the presidency. But when a former acquaintance threatens to reveal a deadly secret he’s kept for the last 25 years, something must be done to protect Sam’s credibility. David Blakely has been Sam’s friend since high school; not only is David “a fixer,” he sold his soul a long time ago. He can make the past vanish and “use it as a weapon to destroy his opponents.”

Readers face an important and timely question: If a politician will break all the rules to keep power, can any government institution stop them? Can Nick stop the plot to eliminate loose ends to a murderous cover-up before the body count rises? You’ll fly through the pages to find out as your skin tingles with the fear of being the hunted with no way out.

Quirk talks to The Big Thrill about red-team assassins, reporting on security and terrorist plots, the political underbelly of our nation’s capital, and advice for other writers.

Tell us more about the real-life security experts who pose as assassins to test personal security.

When you write thrillers, you research wild situations all the time, like how to break into the Department of Defense or how a villain might try to kill a politician. They’re tough subjects because most assassins and break-in artists aren’t eager to sit for an interview. But early on, while writing my novels, I found this world of professionals who pose as threats to test the security around government facilities and high-ranking officials.

My first encounter was reading a government report written by a group of researchers—they’re known as red-teamers—who sneaked into the executive suites of several cabinet heads and left behind bombs as part of a security audit. They used real explosives, although they were mixed at such a concentration that they couldn’t detonate. That crew had a high success rate, something like 90 percent, if I remember correctly. They discussed what techniques they used, like employing a replica police badge to get past security. I was fascinated and used a lot of those details in the books. I started seeking out those folks, and now when I do some stealthy scenes in a novel, I check in with them to understand how it might be done in the real world.

Quirk’s novel The Night Agent was inspired by a friend in the intelligence community who worked on an all-night watch desk. The book gave readers a behind-the-scenes look at the White House Situation Room, including the watch station, pictured here.

You met “mock assassins” while covering crime, counter-terrorism, and security contractors for The Atlantic. Is Nick Averose based on any particular individual you met?

Nick isn’t based on any one red-teamer; he combines bits and pieces of different people I’ve talked to over the years. There are a few details from someone I know who was at the Secret Service, and the idea of a cool converted carriage house in the alleys of Shaw full of hacking tools and break-in gear came from a computer genius friend, Tom Lee, who worked in a converted garage in that neighborhood in DC. He helps me with the technical details.

The red-teamers are a very interesting group because a lot of them have one foot in this clandestine world that’s all about breaking-in and living in the mind of a bad guy (one fellow I talk to, a real leader in the field, goes by the name Deviant) while simultaneously working with the government and large corporations. They switch back and forth between these black-hat and white-hat personas. Many of them are also former military.

The SEALs had one of the most famous government red-teams to test security at nuclear sites. It was run by Dick Marcinko, and he pulled some moves that were as wild as any thriller I could come up with.

What was the most interesting terrorism or security/crime case you covered while at The Atlantic?

A few favorites come to mind. One piece was fascinating in that I just rounded up what it would cost to have private military contractors (mercenaries) do different things: a coup, an assassination, etc. That research informed a couple of elements in HOUR OF THE ASSASSIN. I loved reporting an article about opium smuggling out of Afghanistan where I worked with a French geographer who studied how the drug goes from the poppy field to markets around the world, and talked to the people in Congress and the military trying to fight it.

My favorite intelligence and national security experiences come less from reporting and more from just living and hanging out in DC. I’d get to know someone and find out they worked a secret night watch desk at Langley, or their unassuming dad was undercover in the CIA, or they were a member of some classified military unit, or their buddies at the house party were working for some foreign power trying to rope the US into a war. The intrigue is all over the city, mixed in with people’s mundane day-to-day lives in ways that always surprise me. That’s what initially inspired me to write thrillers.

Matthew Quirk

What role have current political events played in writing HOUR OF THE ASSASSIN?

The red-teamers were the main inspiration for the book, but it also touches on some long-buried Washington secrets. The Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein cases, along with a few others from the realm of politics, played into that mystery. In reading those stories, you see how the rich and powerful can bury the truth, which is nothing new, but it was fascinating to see how it’s done today: the hush payments, non-disclosure agreements, high-end lawyers, intimidation, private spies, and the conspiracy of silence around powerful men.

That kind of thing has been going on in Washington for a long time. I wanted to pull back the curtain on it—all grounded in the reality of day-to-day life in DC, the people I knew who lived in these worlds, the clubs, the elite schools—to show how the people in power keep their secrets and weaponize secrets against others, and to show the bravery of those who will break the silence despite the high risks they face.

Did you really learn to pick a lock? And what about learning how to avoid being kidnapped?

Yes, and it is far easier than you might imagine. Years ago, I bought a set of picks off the internet and had the front door of my house open in under a minute (note to burglars: I’ve since moved!). There’s a great organization called TOOOL that promotes lock-picking as a fun pastime, a hands-on puzzle. It has gotten me out of jams quite a few times, too.

The anti-kidnapping training came out of learning to lock-pick. One of the red-team guys who I talked to about locks and security research suggested I do an urban escape and evasion class that his friend ran. It’s a military-style training where you get mock-kidnapped, hooded and bound in the back of a van, and stun-gunned. Then you have to break out of handcuffs, escape, and evade train trackers across the city—Los Angeles in my case—all without using money or a phone. If they catch you, they handcuff you to the nearest fixed obstacle and leave you to improvise a way out.

It was an exhilarating day, and I managed to not get caught. I picked up a lot of cool technical things that I worked into the books, but one of my most important takeaways was just to remember how it feels to be hunted and jacked on adrenaline for an entire day. If you write thrillers, it’s good to scare the bejeesus out of yourself once in a while.

Quirk prepares to demonstrate how to pick open a pair of handcuffs at an April 2016 reading at Rainy Day Books in Kansas City, with Roger Doeren and Becci West. For the novel Cold Barrel Zero, he went through military-style escape and evasion training in Los Angeles, where the curriculum included escaping a mock kidnapping and evading trained trackers as they pursued participants across the city.

Besides thrilling entertainment, does the book have a message for readers?

Yes, and I try to strike a careful balance about the message in conspiracy thrillers about DC. Because in my experience, most real-life people in Washington are honest, well-educated folks (the city I know is full of lovable nerds) working hard for a cause they believe in. But with some normal tropes of the conspiracy thriller, it’s all too easy to give an impression that everyone and everything inside the Beltway is hopelessly corrupt, which can breed cynicism. Russia and China, for instance, show House of Cards and pretend that it’s a document of day-to-day life in DC, not an over-the-top thriller. Don’t get me wrong, there is an astounding amount of corruption and self-interest, but I would hate to lead people to think nothing can be done about it.

My main goal is to tell a thrilling story, but along the way I like to shed some light on real issues—I touch on the influence of money in campaigns in this one—and hopefully give a sense of how important it is for people to be engaged, participate in their government, and pay attention to what is happening in DC, which also means supporting quality journalism.

What is the most important advice you can give other writers?

My favorite piece of advice is to get away from your computer. I love to figure out a story by taking a walk and thinking it through, or running it past a friend or family member. I do the same thing with a scene, essentially daydreaming and imagining it until I can see the whole thing in my head, and only then sitting down to write. I love getting outside and moving as part of the writing process. All too often, I feel like I’m getting something done at the computer, but I’m really just moving words around and tinkering, and often avoiding the deep thinking needed to figure out a book.

 

K. L. Romo
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