Thursday, January 8, 2015

Brother Can You Spare a Shiv

Thriller Guy’s writer pal Matthew Quirk writes thrillers. He’s working on his third book, after
The 500, and The Directive, both of which are terrific reads. As a hands-on kind of guy, Matthew has schooled himself in lock picking and other techniques his heroes and bad guys use. He recently wrote a piece for Pacific Magazine that I thought Thriller Guy readers might enjoy. Hang around at the end for a question.

"The stun gun crackled. A masked man ordered me into a van, hooded me, and searched me, then forced me to my knees. The van started moving. Someone put a second hood over my head, then doused it with water. It was getting harder to breathe. An interrogator shouted in my face, barking questions and threats at me and my fellow captives. At one point he threw the rear door open and threatened to throw us out of the speeding vehicle.

Fortunately, I had signed up for this.

I had just begun day three of an “urban escape and evasion course run by a company called OnPoint Tactical, which offers security and survival training to soldiers and contractors heading into war zones, business travelers bound for kidnapping hotspots, and civilians interested in disaster preparedness. I was here because I write thrillers for a living, and find myself spending an inordinate amount of time in the head of a protagonist running for his life through urban Americas.

Over the last two days we had practiced what to do if pursued or kidnapped in a dangerous city. We learned how to deal with medical trauma; how to improvise weapons; how to kill people; and how to tell when it might be necessary to do so. We learned how to pick locks and handcuffs with improvised tools; how to break out of flexcuffs and rope and duct-tape bindings; how to steal cars, construct fake IDs, run counter-surveillance, make disguises, and talk our way into getting what we want using the techniques of social engineering.

Now, on the final day, we were putting our new skills – well, most of them – to the test.

For the next seven hours, I would pretend that I had been taken hostage by militants in the hostile country of  “Losbekistan” (aka Los Angeles.) I would attempt to escape from my captors, and then try to elude them as I worked through a set of checkpoints and tasks around the city – all without the use of money or phone. Meanwhile, my classmates and I would be hunted by Kevin Reeve, the owner of OnPoint and an expert tracker, along with a few Marine Corps and Special Forces veterans. If they caught us, we were told, they would handcuff us to a fixed object on a public road and leave us there.

During the course, it dawned on me that my survival skills were not all that were being put to the test. I’m a typical up-with-cities young urban dweller. I often leave my windows open at night, and can be careless about locking up my car or house. While I find L.A. to be somewhat intimidating under normal circumstances, I’m usually pretty trusting. Today, though, soldiers with my mug shot would be lurking around any given corner, and the city itself had taken on a more menacing cast. During class, Reeve taught us the survivalist maxim that any given metropolis is just “nine meals away from anarchy.” He described how he always carries several knives and a trauma kit, and how he constantly sizes up passersby as potential threats. He illustrated our coursework with stories about close calls, assaults, and kidnapping attempts in everyday American towns. If there is one guy you want fixated on the worst-case scenario, it’s your survival instructor. Reeve has taught the most elite military units. Given the material, I found him refreshingly free of bluster and macho posturing. But spending a few days under his tutelage made me question an optimism about cities that I wasn’t eager to give up. And now here I was in an urban area of 13 million people with one of the highest rates of gang homicide in the US, blindfolded, about to be set on the run with no car, no money, no phone, and no idea where I was.

After twenty minutes of driving, the van pulled to a stop. Someone shouted “Drone!” and our captors scrambled. We dug for our hidden bobby pins and picks, shimmed our handcuffs, tore off our hoods, and bolted.

My initial sprint brought me to a six-lane boulevard near Home Depot somewhere in Playa Vista. On edge, I tried panhandling – it was one of our assigned tasks – and was rejected every time. I hated it. I got separated from the classmate I had partnered with, and couldn’t find my next objective. On a narrow shoulder under an overpass, I was looking behind me to see if I was being tailed when the mirror of a passing truck nearly killed me. (If someone is following you, it seems everyone is following you.) I was hot, dirty and thirsty. So far, my optimism wasn’t faring very well.

Then I walked down an alley and a homeless couple asked me for a spare dollar. He had face tattoos and was drinking a tallboy of malt liquor. She was smoking a joint. I was wearing a polo and khakis. I explained that I had lost my wallet and needed bus fare (my pretext for begging.) After we talked for a while, they told me that the L.A. bus system had a no-stranded policy, meaning the driver would let me ride if I dropped anything in the fare box. She gave me a penny – the only money I successfully begged all day – and said, “God bless.”

It worked. A moment later I was cruising on the express bus to Venice. I relaxed and started asking for help everywhere. I was amazed by what the city offered up: donuts, coffee, clothes, disguises, a beach umbrella (which helped me blend in near the pier,) material to make lock picks and fake IDs, a lift in a fancy golf cart. With the help of Reeve’s instructions, the streets provided everything I needed.

My only other close call came when I was about to step into a courthouse near Pico Boulevard to change disguise in the bathroom. Suddenly I remembered what I was carrying in my bag: several disguises, lock-picking tools, and a shank I had fashioned out of broken glass and caution tape (another assignment.) I about-faced for the nearest Starbucks.

My last objective was in Santa Monica. I hadn’t been caught and by now I was having a blast. I thought about the people who helped me the most; day laborers, the homeless, the spaced-out dude who volunteered advice when he thought I was improvising a drug pipe from an aluminum can. (I was making a padlock shim.) A lot of them were in situations that, compared to my cushy day-to-day life, would feel to me like a survival scenario, but they didn’t turn tribal or viscous. They bailed me out. I was at the city’s mercy; it turned out I was in pretty good hands."

Thriller Guy here. One of reasons I found this interesting is the way Quirk had to turn to the other side of society, the people who are down and out or just prefer to remain on the edges of what we think of as urban civilization. But these were the people who helped him the most. Which got TG thinking about mysteries and thrillers where plots and locations feature these same folks, and how well these characters work on the page. Several examples spring to mind, David Baldacci’s The Camel Club series set in Washington DC, Robert Tanenbaum’s Butch Karp series, and the early books by Andrew Vachss, the Burke series back when they were good. So here’s the question: what other books, series or standalone, feature street people, the misfits, the crazy, the homeless, those that live in the urban underbelly.

While TG waits for your answer, he’ll practice picking the lock of his handcuffs and making a shiv out of a toothbrush.


  1. Writer pal Larry, sugests Peter Pan and the Lost Boys as an answer to the question above. An unusual suggestion, but he's right.

  2. This comment from Bill Parke: When the occasion demanded, S. Holmes transformed himself. As well, he relied on street urchins for recon and intel.