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Heller All Fired Up in New Thriller

By Dawn Ius

A few years ago, Joseph Finder read an article about a philanthropic billionaire family that had gotten rich off opioids. The public outrage was swift—thousands protested and demanded that the family’s name be stripped from museums, libraries, and universities across the world.

This kind of outrage isn’t uncommon—and the opioid crisis isn’t new—but something about that particular case sparked the ember of an idea that eventually fueled Finder’s thrilling new release, HOUSE ON FIRE, book five in the Nick Heller series.

“I wondered, what must that feel like, to be blamed for the opioid crisis, to be so widely despised—while at the same time so immensely privileged?” Finder says. “I was fascinated by the family dynamics that would arise from being so rich and hated.”

Finder had been wanting to write about a big family for a while—he comes from a family of five kids—and the dynamics provided the perfect backdrop for a story about the painkillers that have ultimately caused so much pain, a paradox any writer would respond to.

He isn’t the first to explore the topic in fiction—a number of books, thrillers in particular, have tackled the opioid crisis—and hardly a day passes without some kind of reference to it in the news. Finder wasn’t looking to send a message with HOUSE ON FIRE.

Finder greets a canine fan in California during a book tour for his 2014 novel Suspicion.

“I don’t preach, and I didn’t have a Point to Make,” Finder says. “I want to entertain my readers, first and foremost, compel people to turn the pages. Along the way, I think it’s cool to learn something too. Some kind of insider information. I like a little meat on the bones.”

To get to that meat, Finder read a lot about opioids, talked to people in the pharmaceutical industry, interviewed journalists who’d covered the epidemic, and read a handful of books.

“I was amazed to learn that more people have died from opioid overdose than were killed in every single American war put together,” he says. “But the centerpiece of the novel, the tale about the feuding Kimball family, I just made up. It is fiction, after all.”

Finder with his beloved, late golden retriever, Mia.

And at its core, HOUSE ON FIRE is really about families—and not just the dysfunctional rich family at the center of the story. Finder’s beloved “private spy,” Nick Heller doesn’t have a nuclear family himself—“I don’t think he’ll ever get married”—but as Finder notes, Heller is kind of a surrogate father to his nephew, Gabe, and also to the son of Sean Lenehan, the guy who saved him in Afghanistan and whose death propels Heller into action.

Speaking of action—HOUSE ON FIRE is full of it, though not the kind that overshadows the plot or tries to disguise flaws in either the story or the character development. There aren’t any—Finder is a master at his craft.

But in addition to the plot twists and turns inherent in Finder’s work, fans will note some differences in this latest Heller installment—the fifth in the series.

“On this book I spent a lot of time up front mulling over plot ideas, and eventually I plotted around the first 25 percent up to a major plot turning point. Then I let it fly, which meant that plenty of times I found that I’d painted myself into a plot corner,” he says. “Nick was in an impossible situation and I had no idea how to extricate him. Eventually I’d come up with a way out. I figure if it’s a surprise to me, it’s a surprise to the reader.  So I guess I’m a plotter and a pantser: a plantser. A plotser?

Finder suits up in a fire proximity suit during a USO tour in 2012. Used for aircraft rescue and fire fighting, the suits protect wearers from ambient heat up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There’s a big twist in the story that I came up with when I was three-quarters of the way through with writing the book. I love it when I can insert a big old twist at the end. It doesn’t always work. This time it did.”

Finder also spent some extra time providing insight into Heller’s background, taking Nick—and readers—back to Afghanistan and the combat operation that nearly killed Nick, and introducing a woman Nick used to love.

Finder at the Hollywood premiere of High Crimes in April 2002. The Ashley Judd–Morgan Freeman legal thriller was based on Finder’s 1998 novel of the same name.

“We see more of his contemplative side, the softer side of Nick,” Finder admits. “He’s a tough guy, smart and quick witted and contrarian, but what I love most about him, what I find most intriguing, is that he’s got the powers of a chameleon. He was raised extremely rich—until his corrupt father, Victor, got arrested for fraud, and then he lived a life of near-poverty. So he can blend in among the ruling elite, because he’s had a taste of an elite upbringing. But he also knows hardship at first hand. To put it in jargon terms, he can ‘code switch.’ He can hang with his blue-collar buddies as well as rich guys and fit right in.”

Sounds like a perfect hero to hit the screen, right? Finder isn’t ruling it out.

“I can definitely see HOUSE ON FIRE as a limited series, and I know Nick would make a great franchise hero, in the right hands,” he says. “But ultimately that decision belongs to other people. Success in that realm involves the collaboration of many different kinds of talent—and a fair amount of luck.”

Finder has had his fair share of that particular commodity. With 16 novels to his name—many of them international bestsellers—Finder has learned to be a bit of a chameleon himself, adapting to the ever-changing industry while still writing the kinds of books that fuel his creativity, and continuing to learn along the way. Over the years, he’s racked up an impressive wealth of information he’s happy to pass on to others.

Inside a Black Hawk helicopter on a US military base in the Middle East, during a USO tour.

“Probably the most important piece of advice I got was from my agent at the time, who told me to keep writing. Don’t wait around for feedback and affirmation. Just keep working,” he says. “At first I thought he was saying this because he wanted the commissions. But I came to realize that he was right, that nothing helps your career along more than having another book on offer. Nothing keeps you centered better than being busy on another book. You can get so disrupted by extraneous stuff.”

So, what’s the next book Finder is keeping busy on? Unfortunately, fans will have to wait to find out.

That’s another thing I’ve learned over the years, that there are people who can’t stop talking about what they’re working on, and people who don’t talk about it but get the book done,” he says. “I think that talking about a book when you’re in the middle of working on it saps a lot of the energy, like air going out of a balloon.”


Dawn Ius
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