JOSEPH FINDER likes to say that his plan after college was to become a spy. Instead, he’s one of the country’s preeminent thriller writers, celebrating 25 years since his breakout novel, The Moscow Club. That quarter of a century not only found Finder a stalwart on best-seller lists, but also saw an evolution in his work. From his early Russian espionage novels, to the inventive series featuring “private spy” Nick Heller, to his recent stand-alone novels with strong familial themes, the Yale– and Harvard–educated author has managed to keep his stories smart and fresh.
His latest, Guilty Minds, is no exception. The novel plumbs the depths of modern media when Nick Heller is hired to debunk a gossip website’s false story that the chief justice of the United States had dalliances with a high-priced call girl.
At first, I expected either a Washington, DC thriller or maybe a classic Heller novel that raises questions about privacy in the digital age. It’s actually both. The story is particularly timely given the real-life drama over Congress’s refusal to hold hearings over the president’s Supreme Court nominee, and the recent high-profile lawsuits testing the limits of the First Amendment on the web. But it’s still Heller who steals the show. Watching him think his way out of trouble. Or fight his way out — always with an edgy sense of humor. And the secondary characters give the tale a decidedly Beltway feel, like the disgraced Washington Post reporter seeking redemption or the DC power lawyer helping the chief justice navigate the scandal.
The story is sleek and surprising, and you’ll find yourself 200 pages in before you look up. It’s been five years since the last novel in the series, and this is a triumphant return for Nick Heller.
I spoke to Joseph Finder about the Supreme Court, gossip websites, call girls, and, of course, Guilty Minds.
ANTHONY FRANZE: What inspired you to thrust Nick Heller into the secretive world of One First Street? (I thought you nailed the Supreme Court setting, by the way.)
JOSEPH FINDER: Guilty Minds started as a story about scandal — about the dangerous power of gossip in the digital era, the way lies can spread at internet speed. So what better target for this fictional scandal, disseminated by a bottom-feeding gossip website, than the blindingly white, grand marble temple of gravitas, the Supreme Court? Unlike Congress and the presidency, it’s the one institution of our government that’s remained largely untouched by scandal. I’ve always been fascinated by the high court. It’s extremely powerful — it can strike down laws passed by a democratically elected congress, it claims not to make new law but of course it does. And the theatrics are indelible: the secret deliberations, the hushed, high-ceilinged courtroom unseen by television cameras, the judicial robes, the marble columns. It’s an institution whose legitimacy derives from its grandeur and its secrecy, its remoteness and inaccessibility, and its respect. A perfect assignment for my private spy, Nick Heller.
What kind of research did you do on the high court?
Justice Stephen Breyer, who’s an acquaintance as well as a friend of several friends of mine, was kind enough to let me, my wife, and my daughter sit in his personal reserved seats in the main chamber. We watched the justices hear arguments about violent video games, which was fascinating. I also read several books and memoirs about the court. And I wandered through the marble hallways and took notes.
How about the research on call girls…?
Actually, I’d already done up-close-and-personal research on call girls for an earlier novel (The Zero Hour). I didn’t need to do it again. So I read books about call girl scandals in Washington, including the Mayflower Madam. And about the (former New York State governor) Eliot Spitzer call girl scandal. Plus there’s a very good documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. The Spitzer scandal was one of the main inspirations of Guilty Minds because I’m convinced Spitzer, while guilty of hiring call girls, was the victim of a conspiracy, maybe even entrapment. It certainly sparked my imagination.
The book tackles some timely issues about privacy in the internet age (Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker came to mind). What got you interested in the topic?
The Nick Heller books (of which this is number three) have so far all dealt with the disappearance of privacy as our technology evolves. That sounds pretentious, I realize. And it’s not a deliberate planting of a “theme,” I swear. But it just turns out that as Nick, the private spy, finds himself using the most advanced tools of espionage, we see how little privacy we all have left in the digital age.
The explosion of the internet, from a kludgy technology used primarily by techies into a convenience enjoyed by everyone, from kids to teenagers to old folks, has virtually weaponized gossip websites like Gawker or TMZ or PerezHilton.com. Our most intimate, private moments can be posted for all to see; like Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, viewed seven million times on the Gawker website. That’s a whole new type of invasion of privacy. So that got me thinking about how someone with pernicious motives could use a gossip website to destroy his enemy. That seemed like the kind of conspiracy only Nick Heller could get to the bottom of. Wheels within wheels …
There’s a great old noir movie, Sweet Smell of Success, about an all-powerful, brutal gossip columnist named J. J. Hunsecker, played by Burt Lancaster, that described a vanished world of powerful newspapers and much-feared gossip columnists (like Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Walter Winchell). It’s a great, cynical flick. And it occurred to me that, thanks to Gawker and TMZ and PerezHilton.com, those cynical old days are coming back in a whole new way. Perfect for Nick.
The Lancaster movie explains the Hunsecker Media company in the book. Clever!
The lightning pace of Guilty Minds reminded me of the old piece of writing advice for thrillers: “Give the protagonist a tight time limit, and then shorten it.” Without giving anything away, you overtly did this to Nick. Was it intentional?
I wanted Nick to be faced with an impossibly short deadline as the story began. And then I wanted to increase the pressure on him as things went along. I must say, in this novel, I made things awfully tough for old Nick. But as usual he came through just fine.
You’re one of the few best-selling novelists who’s not only had his books optioned by Hollywood, but movies actually made — with huge stars, including Morgan Freeman, Harrison Ford, Liam Hemsworth, and Gary Oldman. What’s your favorite adaptation? And, dare I ask, your least favorite?
That’s easy. High Crimes was far and away my favorite adaptation. They stayed reasonably close to the book. And I wrote the role that Morgan Freeman played with him in mind. Plus they gave me a cameo — I’m in five scenes. Though if you blink you’ll miss me. Then there’s Paranoia, which was such a departure from the book that it was all but unrecognizable. (Not the fault of the very talented screenwriter, by the way; he did what the producers demanded.) And no cameo!
You attended Yale and Harvard and wrote a serious nonfiction book in your 20s. Does it surprise any of your old classmates that you became a thriller writer? Does it surprise you that you’re still doing it a quarter century later?
I’m sure it did surprise some of my classmates. It was an unusual departure, for sure, from the safer, more predictable career paths (lawyer, professor, intelligence officer, finance). I suspect all novelists are a little crazy; it’s not exactly an easy career path. But I’d always wanted to write novels of suspense, really, since I was a kid reading Ian Fleming (no doubt I was too young to really get them). So I gave myself three years to try to write a novel, and it actually came out okay. It did well. That gave me the confidence to keep at it. Now it’s too late for me to do anything else! Also, I like my job and I like being my own boss. Hard to believe it’s been that long since my first novel was published. I don’t reread my own books, but if I did I suspect I’d barely remember them.
It’s a stock last question, but I’d really like to know: What’s next for you?
I’m writing a stand-alone book set in Boston and DC, because I got an idea for a book that could only work as such. Right now I’m planning to alternate stand-alone books with the Nick Heller series. I enjoy writing both. But as much as I’m enjoying the new book, I miss Nick.