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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Cold Barrel Zero by Matthew Quirk

Mulholland Books, 384 pages, $26

I read Matthew Quirk’s first book, “The 500,” and thought it was mighty fine, primarily because he didn’t concentrate on plot at the expense of character. Quirk mastered some could-have-been-dull-as-ditchwater political inner workings and presented them as part of a thriller story. He pretty much does the same thing in “Cold Barrel Zero.” There’s technical gun, medical, and war talk, the details of which enhance the story instead of waylaying it. I have no idea if the technical talk is accurate or not — I was astounded when Roger Hobbs confessed that one of the most interesting details in his caper novel, “Ghostman,” was fabricated — and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Quirk (and Hobbs) talks a good talk.

Although he apparently has had several noms de guerre, “John Hayes" is a special forces leader who went deep undercover in the Middle East with his crew. He claims he was betrayed by his superior officer and Hayes and his crew have been on the run ever since. Whether it’s true or not is determined in teasing bits of story that spring up as the book goes along.

Dr. Thomas Byrne is a surgeon who used to be with the military and now travels around the U.S. working at different hospitals. We learn that he could have a stable job somewhere, but, alas, he has issues. Nevertheless, in an interregnum between episodes of anxiety, he and Kelly Britten, a potential girlfriend, are having a small vacation in San Diego, when men in black come for him because of a supposed connection with Hayes, who, at this point, has been branded a terrorist and renegade.

Some of the men in black are extralegal — perhaps the author is saying that this is not totally unusual in our real twilight world of covert ops and amorphous terrorist organizations. It’s true, it turns out, that Byrne knows Hayes, but they haven’t seen each other in years. Why would he know anything about Hayes’ current activities? “Cold Barrel Zero” contains many wonderful oh-no-he-didn’t moments, but co-opting Byrnes into Hayes' little group stretches it. Nevertheless, Byrne and Britten are soon enmeshed in working out the problem of who are wearing the white and black hats.

There were twists. There were turns. At one point, I thought Quirk was leaving us with a cliffhanger at the end, a device I would have supported. But no, he swiftly clears up the remaining issues. The best part for me — mild spoiler alert — is that Kelly Britten also turned out to be a kick-ass military type. In the end this was an enjoyable and swiftly-paced read.

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