Truth can be stranger than fiction. When Boston thriller writer Joseph Finder discovered how easy it would be for someone to sneak into this country with a fake passport, he didn't put that into his 1995 book Zero Hour. But the one-time CIA recruit hasn't held back on other trade secrets. In his ninth and latest novel, Vanished, he introduces Nick Heller, an immensely likable international security consultant — or "private spy" — who takes on a Blackwater-like private army and the even more evil corporations battling to control it. Along the way, he exposes just how little privacy the average citizen has left. Call it paranoia for pleasure.
Your bio lists you as a member of the association of former intelligence officers. Were you a spy?
I was never on the CIA's payroll. I was recruited by the CIA, but when I got to Langley, they showed me the cubicle where I'd be sitting and translating Soviet economic journals from Russian into English, and I said, "No thanks." That wasn't exactly Jason Bourne stuff.
But at one point you did want to be a spy?
It started when I discovered Gogol as a nerdy junior-high kid. I started reading Russian, and then when I got to college, I got really interested in Soviet politics and intelligence, and I did a lot of primary-source documentary analysis on Soviet history, and my plan was to work for the CIA. But what's cool is, I kind of know the culture, and I know a lot of people in the agency now, and they talk to me because I'm writing fiction. I know if I were writing something for the New York Times, they'd just clam up. I was on the phone two days ago for an hour with a very recent head of the CIA getting all kinds of great stuff. Because he knows he can trust me: I never burn my sources.
Your books are famous for revealing facts that come out later. Do you know that you're revealing hidden truths, or are you just making logical connections?
Both, like in my first novel [1991's The Moscow Club], when I was writing about this coup against Gorbachev, I had all these sources in the intel world who were saying, "Call me crazy, but this is going to happen." The logic made sense. For Zero Hour, which is about a terrorist attack on New York, I had the official cooperation of the CIA and the FBI. I found out a bunch of things that really showed me how lousy our counterterrorism efforts were. I had this character who was getting into the country on a fake passport. The CIA knew it was fake. So I asked, "How fast before the alarm bells go off after this guy enters the country?" And my source, who was then the FBI's chief of counterterrorism, said, "The alarm bells will never go off. Immigration is separate from the FBI, which is separate from the CIA." I was so shocked. I actually left that factoid out. Partly because I thought, "I don't want to tell bad guys how easy it is to get in here," and partly because I thought it strained credibility.
How much of the nasty stuff inVanished is really happening?
Way more than you know. We went into the Iraq war on the cheap and basically hired temps. That created a need for Blackwater, this unsupervised company that was not covered by law and could get away with all this stuff. In the book, the company wants to go into espionage work, and that's true, Blackwater is doing that. It's true and it's scary, and that makes good fiction.
After eight stand-alone thrillers,Vanished launches a series. How did that come about?
I wanted to do a series, but I didn't want to do what everyone else has done: a private investigator, a cop. Then I met this CIA friend of mine in London, and I asked how things were going at the agency, and he said, "I'm not there anymore. I left." And this was weird because he was meeting with a Middle Eastern arms dealer, and I said, "Wait a second, you're meeting with an arms dealer and you're not with the CIA?' And he said, "Yeah, I'm doing the same stuff, I'm just being paid a lot more money."
There's this incredibly interesting phenomenon that nobody has written about yet. Since 9/11, thousands of CIA employees have quit to go private. Some of them work for the CIA. Some of them work for foreign governments, or they work for corporations. Corporations, especially overseas, are doing a lot of stuff. They need intel on who's making the big decision to build that big nuclear plant. In some cases, they want to know how much they need to bribe them. In some cases, they need to know whether their competitors have bribed them. Basically, these guys are private spies. So when I heard that from this friend of mine, I thought, that's really cool. I wanted someone who could plausibly be an action hero. It fit right in with my turf. And it would allow me to find out different stuff in each book.