Bestselling thriller writer Joseph Finder returns this month with a new cutting-edge suspense novel focusing on a wealthy family who owns a pharmaceutical company at the epicenter of the opioid crisis.
In House on Fire (Dutton), private investigator Nick Heller is hired to infiltrate the powerful Kimball family, whose wealth and reputation hide something far more sinister.
By exploring a complicated family dynamic and questions of culpability in a real-life ongoing national crisis, Finder once again has spun a gripping thriller about an up-to-the-minute issue.
He provided more insight in this Q&A:
House on Fire centers on the worldwide opioid crisis, but the story it tells doesn’t involve a company so much as a family. Why is that?
That’s where the interesting drama lies. The original idea came from a news item I read about how museums like the Guggenheim and the Met and the Smithsonian and the Louvre were refusing to accept any more donations from the family that owns Purdue Pharma, maker of the opioid OxyContin. Activists staged protests against them. They’d gone from being great public benefactors to pariahs.
And they were far from the only philanthropists whose “tainted money” was being shunned. Recently the vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warren Kanders, resigned following months of protests over his company selling tear gas. This sort of thing has been going on for a while. Fifty years ago, activists drenched themselves in cow’s blood and called for the resignation of all Rockefellers from the Museum of Modern Art board of trustees because of their support for the Vietnam War.
So I wondered what it must be like to be a member of a family that’s being publicly shamed that way. Institutions are not only refusing to take your money—they’re giving it back! They’re stripping your name from their walls.
Are the makers of OxyContin the only companies that have made a lot of money off of opioids?
No, and they’re not even the biggest. That would be Johnson & Johnson, maker of Band-Aids, who also own the patent on a strain of opium poppy that grows in Tasmania. Recently Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma for dishonest marketing of opioid drugs.
And a company called Insys Therapeutics was found guilty of bribing doctors to over-prescribe its opioid drug. Companies that have made a fortune on opium-derived drugs are now being called to account in thousands of lawsuits around the country. Families whose inheritance came from these drugs are being shunned.
You write standalones as well as series novels. Why was this one a Nick Heller novel?
I’d been bouncing around several ideas for the next Nick Heller (he’s my series character, a “private spy” for hire), wanting to get Nick involved with a wealthy family. Then the opioid crisis story came along and there it was. I realized Nick would be the perfect conduit for this story, because he was raised in great wealth before his father was arrested and the family lost all their money. Since Nick has a uniquely cynical point of view on the wealthy, having once been rich and no longer, I thought it would be interesting to have him hired by a renegade female member of a rich family under siege, for mysterious purposes, and then have a relationship develop between them.
The event that sets Nick Heller off on his journey is the death of a good friend who saved his life once in Afghanistan — a member, with Nick, of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Why a veteran?
Nick’s friend Sean Lenehan returned from Iraq with a traumatic brain injury from repeated and close exposure to explosions — he was the unit’s “breacher,” in charge of blowing in doors and such. Once he was prescribed an opioid, he quickly became addicted. In fact, the extent of opioid abuse among veterans is really alarming. Veterans die from opioid overdoses more than twice as often as civilians. This is in large part because vets suffer in higher numbers (around 20 percent) from PTSD, depression and traumatic brain injury. In general, veterans have higher rates of addiction and prescription drug abuse than civilians.
Nick Heller dropped out of Yale to enroll in the U.S. Army Special Forces. That wasn’t your personal experience — so how did you create his character?
I have a number of sources who served in the Special Forces, the Green Berets, after 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’ve been good enough to tell me their stories, talk about action they’ve seen, what their training was like, and what they’ve done in wartime. I spent time interviewing these Special Forces soldiers — who are amazingly brave, and smart and educated — in order to get a sense of what was in their heads.
There’s a scene in which Nick Heller undergoes an invasive clinical trial in order to gain access to a building. How realistic was that?
Pretty realistic, I’d say. I actually contacted a world expert in acid reflux and told him, look, I’m writing a scene where a healthy adult takes part in a clinical trial of some new acid-suppression drug, but I have no idea how that would work. What that would feel like. And he was sort of intrigued by the question. He designed my fictional clinical trial, down to almost every last detail.
In one particularly suspenseful scene, Nick breaks into a corporate executive’s office which is well protected. Is that entirely invented?
I have a source, a hacker, who’s hired by corporations and foreign governments to break in, challenge their defenses. He laid out for me exactly how he’d do it and how he’d get around the security. What equipment he’d use. How it would really happen.
One of the Kimball scions teaches expository writing at Harvard. You know something about that?
Guilty. I used to teach “expos” at Harvard before I turned to writing fiction full time.
House on Fire is now available for purchase.