Book Review: House on Fire by Joseph Finder
By Janet WebbJanuary 29, 2020
Boston private investigator Nick Heller is nobody’s fool. Take his clients Herb Martz and Mort Vallison. Herb hired Nick to prove that his partner, Mort, was trying to kill him. Nick reached out to Mort, who took the bait.
A week later, Mort came to my office to discuss business. I assured him the office was a safe place to talk. He wanted me to get rid of his partner. Not that I asked, but he gave a reason that almost held up: his partner was embezzling profits from the company, had been doing so for decades.
Film noir notwithstanding, it’s not de rigueur to ask a private detective to kill someone. As Nick puts it, “I have to explain that it’s not in my list of client services.” Nick smells a rat and enlists the help of a friend who works for “the state police’s Special Investigation Unit, and she liked my idea of setting up a sting.” Bingo. Both men were milking the company for illicit cash. This anecdote shows that Nick would rather do the right thing than get paid, he has good contacts with law enforcement, and lastly, he never takes his clients stories at face value. He also has a wry sense of humor. Only a private detective who wanted to avoid pesky foot traffic would have a sign on his office door reading HELLER ASSOCIATES—ACTUARIAL CONSULTING SERVICES.
Investigating gets personal when Patty Lenehan calls Nick from Cape Cod. Her husband Sean had been a member of Nick’s Special Forces A-team.
He saved my life once, in Afghanistan, and you don’t easily forget something like that. I was the godfather to one of his kids. I was their uncle Nick.
Sean came back from Afghanistan and Iraq four tours after I left and soon thereafter developed a drug problem. Like millions of Americans, he became addicted to opioids.
The Veteran Affairs department was of no help, nor did Sean have any money, so Nick paid for him to go to rehab. It was hard to convince his macho, former Special Forces friend to agree, but Nick was persistent as only a brother-in-arms could be.
Finally he consented, and three months in rehab really seemed to do the trick. The past year, I thought he’d remained clean. I just hope he hadn’t backslid.
Patty gives Nick the worst news: “He’s dead,” she said. “Overdose.”
Nick blames himself: why did he assume that Sean was fine—why didn’t he visit the family more often? “He saved my life once; I should have been able to save his.” At Sean’s graveside, Nick is approached by an unknown woman who gives off a boho, designer feel. Can they talk? Nick accompanies her to an Italian restaurant and checks her out closely. Her clothes have a Parisian feel and she’s decked out in diamonds.
I pay close attention to what women wear, not because I care about fashion but because I think women tell you a lot with what they choose to wear, much more than men do. This woman was artistically inclined, and wealthy, and unconventional.
Right on all counts: she’s Susan Kimball, the daughter of billionaire Conrad Kimball of Kimball Pharma—a “great philanthropist” and “a rapacious entrepreneur.” Of vital interest to Nick, “the company he’d founded, Kimball Pharmaceutical, made the opioid drug Oxydone, the drug that Sean Lenehan had overdosed on.” Susan—a.k.a Sukie Garber, a documentary filmmaker—has a job for Nick. Twenty years ago, when Oxydone was developed, there was a clinical trial: “It was a bombshell study. It showed how dangerously addictive Oxydone was.” Sukie is convinced that her father “must have arranged to make it disappear,” because the drug would never have come to market if the government had known of its dangers. Sukie wants to be a whistleblower, but she lacks the evidence. That’s where Nick comes in.
“I want leverage. I want blackmail.”
“For what? Not—for money?”
“Nothing for me. I want to force my father to set up a network of clinics around the world to take care of the people he’s addicted.”
“Think he’d do that?”
“It’s that or I hand the study to a reporter for the Times or the Washington Post. His choice.”
Nick tells Sukie it won’t necessarily go down like she envisions: “Big companies don’t go down easy.” But Sukie is “running out of time,” is Nick trustworthy? Joseph Finder slips in some pertinent information about Nick’s background—he’s the son of Victor Heller, a notorious “scuzzy” Wall Street criminal, now serving “a thirty-year sentence in a prison in upstate New York.” Nick’s background is his calling card. He comes from wealth, albeit fraudulent, he attended Yale before he dropped out, and he even spent a couple summers working for McKinsey. The perfect date, well, “plausible enough,” for Sukie to bring to her father’s eightieth birthday party. Tomorrow.
It takes a conversation with Sean’s widow for Nick to decide he’s in. Patty says, “for the longest time I thought Sean was weak,” and simply looking to “get high.”
“It never occurred to me that he might really be addicted, that he might have been powerless over the drug.”
“He wasn’t weak,” I said, taking a long swig.
“And then I realized there are all these people out there, I mean doctors and lawyers and businessmen and moms, and they’re all hooked on Oxydone, or Oxycontin, or whatever. Sean got addicted because his doctor wrote him a prescription and told him to take it. Take Oxydone, he said. But he didn’t say, Be careful, you might get addicted. Why is that not malpractice?”
Why indeed? If Conrad Kimball knew the addictive qualities of Oxydone and still put it on the market, shouldn’t a lack of responsibility be his liability?
When Nick arrives at the party, he’s flabbergasted to see “he is not the only private investigator employed by a Kimball scion.” Maggie, someone he worked with at the Pentagon years back—and, more significantly, his former lover—is also at the festivities.
Let the games begin! House on Fire tackles the subject of opioid addiction in a fresh way, by examining its origins through the lens of crime fiction. Nick Heller is the perfect guide to a world where no one is quite as they seem: although he blames himself for Sean’s death, he is dispassionate and deliberate as he tracks down the truth.