The Interview by King Hurley

The publicity material for King Hurley’s debut novel, The Interview, says the former pharmaceutical and health-care executive aims to carve out a new thriller niche and do for business what John Grisham did for the legal profession.

Hurley is not yet in Grisham’s league, but The Interview is a fast-paced, entertaining page-turner.

Told in the first person, the novel centers on one Michael King, an incredibly successful chief executive officer of a publicly traded pharmaceutical firm in Colorado with annual sales of $500 million. King, who zips around Boulder in his Porsche Cayenne; his wife, Lauren, and their 5-year-old daughter, Hanna, are comfortably ensconced in a lovely house with spectacular views of the Flatirons outside that city.

King has just completed another vexing quarterly conference call with financial analysts when a headhunter phones with news that Panda Pharmaceuticals, a private, international corporation with $3 billion in sales, is interested in his services.

Panda’s co-founder, president and CEO, Philip Chatzwirth, 73, is retiring, and the secretive corporation has zeroed in on King as the candidate to succeed him. The company is so intent on persuading King to take the job and move his family to Virginia that it’s dangling a base annual salary of $5 million, a $5 million signing bonus, $100 million guaranteed over 20 years, his own private jet, and a $3 million housing allowance.

“On the surface, it was a home run, a no-brainer, a slam-dunk,” King muses. “That’s what concerned me. It was too good to be true.”

Despite the alarm bells going off, King is intrigued by the offer and the chance to escape from the fishbowl existence of a CEO at a publicly traded company, where success is measured quarter by quarter.

He flies to Virginia to meet with Chatzwirth, officers and board members. But it quickly becomes clear that the real test will be his interview with Dr. Chu Zhong Liu, the corporation’s other co-founder. Liu, a Taiwan native based in Thailand, has developed Panda’s revolutionary line of non-addictive painkillers based on opium derivatives.

King makes plans to fly to Bangkok to meet Liu, tour the company’s research and development facilities, and see some of Panda’s 120,000 acres of poppy fields in Thailand’s notorious Golden Triangle.

“The one con was the company’s overreliance, as I saw it, on opium-based drug development,” King relates. “It wasn’t a matter of ethics or legality; it was a matter of resources.”

In Thailand, King finds unbelievable opulence and encounters a series of tests, both mental and physical. And he begins to have misgivings about the single-mindedness that seems to propel the Panda personnel.

“You see, Panda is more than just a company. It is family,” one of Liu’s daughters tells King. “And from the family’s view, you are the chosen one.”

King wonders: “The question that begged to be asked was this: when does commitment end and obsession take over?”

Hurley is a deft writer, and The Interview is engaging and well-paced. The author, whose own resume includes stints at Novartis Nutrition and Fujisawa Pharmaceuticals, even manages to make five-year business plans, marketing strategies, and the inner workings of the pharmaceutical industry interesting.

And Hurley’s depiction of beauty, intrigue and danger in mysterious Thailand makes for compelling reading. His lone misstep is the novel’s Rambo-esque ending. It may seem peevish to complain that the denouement of a thriller is unrealistic. But King’s behavior in the final pages does not ring true, even for a former football player with a black belt in karate.

Another complaint centers on sloppy proofreading by the novel’s publisher. Annoying misspellings and verbal gaffes on the order of “the sounds and scents of an Istanbul bizarre” and a description of King and companions exiting a Hummer recounted as “we clamored out” can stop a reader cold.

All in all, though, Hurley may well turn out to be a trailblazer in the nascent field of business-thriller lit. His second novel, Mondai Nai, is due to be published this spring.