House on Fire: A Novel

Image of House on Fire: A Novel (A Nick Heller Novel)
Release Date: 
January 21, 2020
Reviewed by: 

“. . . [this is] the charm of a Joseph Finder novel, tugging readers into identifying with the PI, even without ever carrying a weapon or sneaking up on a suspect themselves.”

In book 4 of his Nick Heller series, House on Fire, Joseph Finder merges the traditional private investigator role of his PI protagonist with a dangerous form of industrial espionage: prying into the family secrets of the corporation behind a powerfully addictive opioid. The enormous wealth of the Kimball family, built on their share of the drug economy, is rooted in family guilt as well. And the minute Nick starts prying, he’s a target for those willing to protect their secrets and fortunes by any means possible.

You’d think Nick would realize this and decline the case. But as Finder demonstrates so deftly, Nick’s heartstrings are vulnerable to old loyalties. In this case, the funeral of his army buddy Sean, who saved Nick’s life in the service, summons Nick to support the grieving widow and kids—and sets him up as a target:

“One woman stood out from the other mourners. She was a hippieish woman in her thirties, wearing a busily colored fringed, crochet-knit shawl over a black dress. I’d noticed her before, at the church, sitting off by herself. . . . She didn’t look like she came from here. I couldn’t figure her out. My first thought was that she was a journalist, but then I ruled that out—she was dressed too nicely. I also had the strong feeling she’d been looking at me.”

Susan Kimball, it turns out, is there to recruit Nick to infiltrate her family’s compound and extract an important file of results: ones that showed how addictive the Kimball fortune-making drug would be, well before it gained approval for the marketplace. Susan, or Sukie, wants justice for the drug-related deaths, and is willing to help Nick expose the research hanky-panky.

In the big crowd of guests at the grand estate, unexpectedly Nick finds his his former colleague and lover Maggie. The two can still trust each other, and swap some details, discovering they’ve got parallel assignments to pursue. Good thing to have some companionship, because nothing among the Kimball crowd is as direct or honest as it may look, and by a third of the way through this investigation, Nick and Maggie are dodging murderous plots right and left. Even Sukie might not be playing straight, despite what she’s got to gain from Nick’s potential success.

Finder provides a straightforward suspense thriller in House on Fire, turning up the action and tension with each scene. When Nick tracks down the original whistle-blower for the pharmaceutical scam, the tension goes global, too, with connections to Eastern Europe. Soon one of the other Kimball family members suggests that Nick will need to tackle a necessary murder in order to get through the case: “‘Every document of civilization in also a document of barbarism. The son wants to redeem the sins of the father but at the same time he’s necessarily implicated in them, right?’”

Talk high philosophy to Nick, and you provoke him into questioning everything else he’s getting told—which is the charm of a Joseph Finder novel, tugging readers into identifying with the PI, even without ever carrying a weapon or sneaking up on a suspect themselves.

For those who follow the latest scandals of real-life pharma companies, some of the revelations in House on Fire will seem straight from the news. But fear not, Finder always has another twist ready, and the best of them involve loyalty, friendship, and compassion. Buckle up for a good read.