Joseph Finder on Suspicion
(Joseph Finder’s latest novel Suspicion has received rave reviews from some of the toughest book critics in the business. Last week I had a chance to interview Joe, we spoke about his latest novel, the craft of writing and of course the Boston Red Sox.)
TSM: Good to speak with you Joe. You’ve received a lot of advance praise for Suspicion, with David Montgomery who can be rather a tough critic describing the book as the best thriller he’s read in years. Tell us about the book.
JF: It’s an ordinary-guy-in-extraordinary-circumstances story—a subgenre of the thriller that Alfred Hitchcock excelled in. It’s the story of a writer, a biographer named Danny Goodman, who’s struggling financially and has a daughter in a very expensive private school in Boston. He’s a single dad—his wife recently died of cancer—and is struggling with raising a girl on his own. He can’t afford to pay the school’s tuition, yet his daughter loves the school. One day a fellow dad at the school, the father of his daughter’s best friend and a billionaire, offers Danny a loan to cover the tuition. He hesitates, but not for long. And then his life is turned inside out. . .
TSM: To us Hitchcock fans, I can’t help but remember the film with Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine—is there a nod to Hitch in the book?
JF: Oh, absolutely. The dynamic between Danny and his new friend Tom Galvin is quite consciously based on the Hitchcock movie “Suspicion,” in which Joan Fontaine’s character becomes convinced that Cary Grant’s character is trying to kill her. Danny and Tom become great buddies, but Danny’s just not sure whether Galvin knows more than he lets on . . .
TSM: Do you find stand-alone thrillers are more challenging to write than novels with a series character?
JF: Yes, absolutely. You hear that, John Sanford and Michael Connelly and Lee Child? Writing a series is easier for the very simple reason that you already have your hero figured out. Writing a standalone, you have to come up with a whole new cast of characters each time. But I haven’t decided which I like more. I very much like the familiarity I have with Nick Heller—he’s like a friend—and his world, and I miss writing the Heller books. We’ll see what my publisher tells me to do.
TSM: Are you working on your next novel—any clues as to what it’ll be about?
JF: I don’t like to talk about books in progress. Let me just say that it’s another standalone set in Boston.
TSM: You recently changed publishers, how has your experience been with the Dutton team? I’ve known Ben Sevier for years and I think he’s a very talented sharp editor.?
JF: Dutton is fantastic. It’s a very small, almost boutique house, and they give a lot of attention to each of the books they publish. I’ve known Ben Sevier for years—we used to run into each other at writer’s conferences—and he’s not only a great editor, he’s a great publisher, which is a very different skill set.
TSM: I know you’re one of those writers who are obsessive about getting all your research right, so who were you calling and quizzing about money laundering and cartels??
JF: Yes, as you know, I do love my research. Mostly I like to get the details right. It’s like this great line by the poet Marianne Moore, which defines the best poetry as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” I’m writing an imaginary garden, so to speak, and I want the toads to be real. Maybe I’m stretching that metaphor, but that means that even though I’m writing fiction, I want the story and the characters to be plausible. So for SUSPICION I talked to several former DEA agents about how informants are recruited and handled. I got some very alarming information about how the Mexican drug cartels have used U.S. banks to launder money, and about their reach into this country. I also spoke with experts on money laundering in the Treasury Department, off the record. I feel like what happened in SUSPICION could actually happen . . . which makes it all the more frightening, to me.
TSM: Was there an event or a particular experience that inspired you to write Suspicion?
JF: Yes—the experience of being a father. Having a kid turned out to be the greatest research project I’ve ever undertaken. And one of the things I’ve learned being a dad is that I would basically do anything for my daughter. If I were in Danny Goodman’s situation in SUSPICION, I’d no doubt make the same dangerous choice he did. Also, being a public-school-educated kid with a daughter in a very fancy private school was, for me, a great sociological experience. My wife and I made some very good friends among the parents. We also met, among the parents, a fascinating cross-section, from the super-wealthy to the underprivileged. That I didn’t expect. But that provided some great material for the novel.
TSM: You are by no means a formula writer, yet you’ve gotten the recipe down for writing fantastic thriller—what are some of the basic elements that separate a Joseph Finder, Jeff Deaver thriller from some of the more basic thrillers?
JF: Thank you very much, Andrew. Here’s what I think distinguishes a well-made thriller from a mediocre one: the author of a particularly good thriller writes with the assumption that his readers are quite smart and have seen lots of TV and movies and read lots of thrillers. They come to the experience of reading your novel with a whole set of expectations and understandings of what the conventions are. You have to assume your readers are smart. That way, you’ll never condescend to them. Apart from that, a good thriller has to move quickly from the outset—our readers expect that these days—but also has to have a certain novelistic texture, a richness of character and setting and a point of view that seems fresh.
TSM: I know critics were unkind to the film adaptation of Paranoia but despite it all do you consider the whole experience positive? For the record, I thought it was a fine thriller and I knew it could never be as good as your novel.
JF: Thanks. I think of movie adaptations as being great big billboards advertising the underlying property. A successful movie can bring you lots of new readers. And the odds of a book actually being made into a movie are so small they’re almost infinitesimal. So I felt lucky a movie got made of Paranoia at all. I enjoyed the process, and I loved being able to take my daughter, Emma, to the Hollywood premiere—that was a blast.
TSM: Seeing the Red Sox with a 19-18 record can you at least admit that they got lucky against the Tigers?
JF: One thing you learn being a Red Sox fan is that they almost always start off the season in a depressingly incompetent way. The Red Sox’ three World Series trophies should speak for themselves. (And don’t go throwing Detroit’s four championships back in my face, please…)
(Editor’s note: A couple of days after the interview the Tigers soundly defeated the Red Sox in three straight games in Boston).
Photo: Winterhouse Studios