The 500 A Novel By Matthew Quirk Reagan Arthur Books/Little Brown. 336 pp. $25.99

Reviewed by Deen Kogan

Mike Ford is the featured player in The 500, a debut novel by Matthew Quirk that brings The Firm and Presumed Innocent to mind.

He is an unlikely hero, a blue-collar kid gone bad, who followed in his con-man father's footsteps, but got a chance to redeem himself when a sensible judge said: "Join up or end up dead or in prison." Ford joined the Navy, found he liked the structure and discipline, and turned his life around. He opted for the honest, straight, and narrow, worked his way through college, tended bar 50 hours a week, graduated from Harvard Law School with top honors — and wound up in debt.

Not just his debt, either, but debt for his mother's terminal illness. So, Ford finds himself a target of collection-agency harassment.

Your parents' debts are supposed to die with them, settled out of the estate. Not mine. The eighty-three grand is the balance due for my mother's stomach cancer treatment. She was gone now. And if I may share one piece of advice, it's this: if your mother is dying, don't ever pay her bills with your own checkbook.

This head-of-the-class, newly minted lawyer signs on with a top D.C. "professional relations and consulting firm," the Davies Group, and as a junior associate, he's immediately on the power fast track. That's when another level of reality sets in, more serious than a collection agency's dunning. It doesn't take much time until Mike Ford realizes he has made a pact with a visible devil, Henry Davies, head of the firm and his mentor, who didn't ask him but told him he'd be coming to D.C. His initial lesson: "If you want to lead nations, you have to start by understanding a single man, his wants and fears, the secrets he won't admit, may not even be aware of himself. Those are the levers that move the world. Every man has a price. And once you find it, you own him, body and soul."

The 500 is set in Washington, the political mecca of the universe. It's a town Matthew Quirk knows well. After studying history and literature at Harvard, he spent five years at the Atlantic reporting on crimes, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs. He lives outside Washington.

Quirk makes the case that the business of government is run not by elected officials, but by the 500, the elite men and women of Washington who know not just where the bodies are buried but who put them there. It's a world of super PACs, and the Davies Group is the go-to group for political accommodation. For Quirk, the lobbyist and the con artist have much in common. The goal is the same for each; only the lingo is different. Mike understands that at the Davies Group "instead of 'casing' we assessed our subjects. The 'hook' became development, the 'roper' and the 'shill' became access agents, the 'take' became the ask and 'cooling the mark' and 'the blowoff' became termination. Instead of the Jamaican switch, the rag, and the old pig-in-a-poke, we had the 501(c)(3)s, PACs, and affiliated committees."

Throw in some foreign interests, several entrapments, a Supreme Court justice, and the narrative gallops along. Think of the tension and exhilaration when a championship sporting event concludes. That is what Ford's life has become with each case assignment. The perks are there, but so are the invisible strings attached. Mike Ford is a unique addition to the thriller ranks. While he has made the jump to rarefied circles of power, his past and his relationship with his father also influence the present and help him climb out of the morass that holds him and threatens not just his newfound way of life, but also life itself.

The 500 is a particularly compelling and relevant novel, given today's political environment. It's also a terrific story in which Mike Ford (Matthew Quirk?) poses an interesting question: "How do you go honest in a city run by crooks?"