by Joseph Finder
While Sweet Smell of Success is a widely heralded as a 1957 film noir, its plot description on your Netflix envelope won’t mention murder or blackmail or any other characteristics associated with the genre. In fact it sounds almost tame as a tale about people who use the power of the press to sully reputations.
Even so it turned out to be 100 percent nastier than some of the biggest shoot-em-ups of the era, with Burt Lancaster projecting the lethally hypnotic stillness of a hooded cobra striking at-will to destroy peoples’ lives, and Tony Curtis embodying every archetypal quality of the sleazy publicist beholden to him.
As someone who makes a living in the media business, I remember getting up at the end of the movie and wondering if some of the more difficult people in my industry might actually be evil, as opposed to just annoying.
Years later I imagined that prospect once again as I read Joseph Finder’s GUILTY MINDS. At the first line – “Lies are my business. They keep me employed” – I realized it was another Nick Heller thriller, Finder’s fifth story (counting a short story co-authored by Lee Child) centered by this cool character who bills himself as “a private spy” – someone who’s often hired by dangerous people to get them out of dangerous situations.
I’ve loved all of these books because Heller reminds me of a modern version of Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. Heller, like Marlowe, makes his living (in Chandler’s words) “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.” It’s like Heller says – his job is to get mostly bad people out of trouble they create for themselves.
In GUILTY MINDS the trouble is tremendous for one of the nation’s most visible and influential officials, who’s about to be identified in Scandal Sheet magazine for a three-day dalliance with a high class prostitute.
With deft, swift storytelling, the first several chapters take Heller through engaging conversations with a high-profile friend of the nation’s most powerful politicians (a character who will seem instantly familiar to a lot of Washingtonians), a highly motivated investigative reporter, and the skillful co-workers and friends who help Heller show the liaisons never happened.
Or at least they can’t be proven. Thanks to years of experience with similarly smart operators, Heller has the nagging sense that people are still lying. What’s worse – at least in my impression of Heller as a character – is that he has a feeling he’s been manipulated. Although his business is rescuing people from lies they’ve told, he’s obsessed with uncovering the truth when he thinks people have lied to him.
That’s what drives the rest of this book. It’s also the reason why Nick Heller stories will always be bestsellers. He’s an ordinarily-looking guy with extraordinary life experiences. As a young adult of some means he turned his back on privilege and enlisted in the military and deployed to Afghanistan. Years later, he’s a highly intelligent investigator who employs women who he expects are smarter than he is. And although he counts on the problems of the rich and powerful to pay his bills, he doesn’t want to act like one of them.
In GUILTY MINDS Heller’s technological and investigative skills are more adept than ever – particularly with support from people who work for him and contacts he made in military life and beyond. This is fortunate since he’s soon clashing with violent thugs employed by a security firm hired by the nation’s most powerful individuals and organizations. He also takes a Jason Bourne-Jack Reacher approach to physical threats, aggressively confronting them instead of stepping away.
All of which leads to striking revelations about the power of media manipulation as a means to an end – in this case a conspiracy that shows the murderous measures the rich and powerful will take to protect their good names.