How I Came to Write this Book
Although BURIED SECRETS is my tenth novel, it’s my first sequel. And writing a sequel — or to be more precise, the second book in what I hope will be a long-running series — was a new experience, which required that I learn some new things along the way.
I resisted the idea of a series for a long time. I was a stand-alone guy, I told my publishers and readers. The kind of books I wrote put their protagonists through so much hell; how could I bring them back for more? How would that even be plausible? Most of us never go through one life-or-death adventure. What kind of person puts himself or herself through that on a regular basis? I couldn’t figure out how to do it without making the main character a law-enforcement official, or a conventional private eye, or a secret government operative — and as I looked over my bookshelves it seemed that all of those fields were already well-occupied by masters. Even if I could compete with Michael Connelly, Robert B. Parker, Tess Gerritsen and the like, I didn’t really want to.
During a business trip to London I got a call from an old friend, a contact in the CIA. How he knew I was in London, I’m not sure; it didn’t matter. We made plans to have dinner and catch up, as it had been a while.
“Are you still with the CIA?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “I’m doing something different now.”
In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, many of the CIA’s covert operatives found themselves underemployed. To their surprise, the private sector wanted their skills, and was willing to pay top dollar. My friend had gone to work for one of these organizations. He had become, in essence, a “private spy.” He gathered intelligence for corporations and private individuals, sometimes sharing what he learned with governmental entities, sometimes doing things civil servants wouldn’t be allowed to do. My friend was making more money, and operating with more autonomy, than he would ever have been able to do with the Agency.
This, I realized, was a character I could build a series around.
But knowing what my character did for a living was only the beginning. If this were going to be a character I’d be writing about for many books to come, he’d have to be someone I not only knew well, but liked. He’d have to have a distinctive name, but not an odd one; the days when you could call a character “Sherlock” (what kind of name is Sherlock, anyway?) are long gone. I liked the name “Nick,” and had even used it before (in COMPANY MAN). He needed a two-syllable last name; I came up with “Heller.” Nick Heller, a dactyl. The name of a man you could trust, but also a man who wasn’t afraid to break a few rules.
For Nick’s first outing, VANISHED, I put together an extended family history. The son of a rogue financier, Nick grew up on a palatial estate in Bedford, New York, with one older brother. Their father, a brilliant financier named Victor Heller, was arrested for fraud and insider trading when Nick was only 12 years old; their mother took her sons back to her own family home in suburban Boston.
Nick needed to be smart. He needed to be resourceful. He needed to have skills and contacts the ordinary person doesn’t have. I made him ex-Special Forces, with work experience at McKinsey & Company before joining the Army. I gave him a job with Stoddard Associates, an inside-the-Beltway private international security and consulting firm. I built an enormous dossier of material about Nick’s background, training and personal history. I even found an old photo of George Clooney looking dangerous, which exactly matched the picture of Nick in my mind’s eye.
All of this material fed the action of VANISHED, which begins with the disappearance of Nick’s older brother, Roger, and leads to the revelation of long-kept secrets that shake the whole structure of Nick’s life. VANISHED ends with Nick making the decision to return to Boston, where his mother still lives, and set up his own firm as a private international security consultant.
Which meant that for BURIED SECRETS, I needed to learn even more about Nick’s personal history.
I’ve always been a research guy. Before I was a novelist, I was an academic. False modesty aside, I was good at school. I liked it, and still do; while it was great to be able to quit my day job, I miss teaching, and am always glad to have the chance to speak at writers’ conferences.
When I was writing my first novel, THE MOSCOW CLUB, I studied the masters: Ludlum, Follett, Fleming, Le Carre. I took their books apart. I looked at how they introduced characters and set up action sequences. I studied how they filled in backstory and revealed plot twists. I dissected their structures and tried to structure my own book in the same way.
When it came time to write a sequel, I did the same thing. I looked at the great series characters of thriller fiction: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. How did these authors give new readers the information they needed about the main character without boring people who had read the earlier books? How did they introduce new information about the major characters over time? How did they keep the characters and stories fresh, from one book to the next?
I want new readers to be able to pick up any Nick Heller book and enjoy it without reading the earlier novels, but I also want to reward loyal readers who follow Nick’s story over time. Nick didn’t have a love interest in VANISHED; in BURIED SECRETS I gave him an old flame, FBI agent Diana Madigan, who might be the one who got away. Readers also get to meet Nick’s mother, Francine, whose former boss, financier Marshall Marcus, becomes Nick’s client. For those who read VANISHED, I brought back Nick’s invaluable assistant, Dorothy, and his teenaged nephew, Gabe. Gabe went through a lot in VANISHED, but you don’t need to know that in order to appreciate his relationship with Nick in BURIED SECRETS. If you do, however, you might be pleased to see that he’s rebounded, and that his relationship with Nick is strong as ever.
If you’d told me five years ago that I’d enjoy writing a series this much, I’d have said you were crazy. But to my great surprise and satisfaction, I keep learning new things about Nick. He has unexpected depths, and skills I’m still discovering. His profession seems uniquely well-suited to almost any adventure I want to send him on. The third Nick Heller book is almost finished, and the plot for the fourth is in my head. At some future point I may well decide to write another stand-alone, but I’m looking forward to a productive working relationship with Nick Heller for many years to come.
You find out more about Joe Finder and his books, right here.