Nick Heller, the private spy introduced two years ago in Joseph Finder’s “Vanished,” is the guy you want on your side when your corporation needs deep background or your political life needs a cleanup. His job seems like a dream gig for a former intelligence operative who thrills at assessing damage and unearthing information for very substantial fees. But in “Buried Secrets,” Heller must uncover something far more urgent: a teenage kidnap victim, buried alive.
That unspeakable terror is hardly new in American thrillers. Just last year, Lisa Scottoline buried the protagonist of “Think Twice” in a cornfield, and master storyteller Edgar Allan Poe has left generations scared witless with “The Cask of Amontillado.” But Finder rachets up the fear factor with a chilling techno-touch: Alexa, the 17-year-old daughter of billionaire Marshall Marcus, Heller’s longtime friend, is stuck in a crypt, her agony visible via a streaming video feed to her dad’s home computer.
Heller’s ties to Marcus go back to his youth, when Heller’s disgraced father faced prison for fraud and his mother accepted Marcus’s offer of employment. Heller is also genuinely fond, even protective, of Alexa, who had been abducted once before, taken from a mall, then safely returned — no ransom demand, no clues. After that episode, Heller talked to Alexa about fear and danger: “I told her that she was not only a girl but a beautiful girl and a rich girl, and that those were three strikes against her. . . . I showed her some rudimentary self-defense techniques, a few basic martial-arts moves. Nothing fancy, but enough. I’d hate to be a drunken Exeter boy who tried to push her too far.”
But all the martial-arts moves in the world wouldn’t have saved her from a calculated grab at a Boston nightspot, where she and a friend encounter an enigmatic hottie. Hours later, when her heavily spiked drink wears off, Alexa’s confusion turns to comprehension as she recalls Poe’s stories from high school, twisted tales so disturbing she couldn’t finish reading them. Now she’s living one.
Even as Heller gathers information that he hopes will lead to a metallic box somewhere underground, he suspects Alexa’s parents aren’t telling him everything. Marcus and his trophy wife, whose Southern belle facade rings false for Heller, don’t react like the anguished parents of a missing child. Marcus balks at calling the police or asking the public to help find his daughter. Heller realizes that this is more than a hostage situation or a ransom demand. The sadist holding Alexa dictates his terms to her, and she shrieks and sobs a key word, “Mercury,” as her bewilderment and fear play out in jerky video images. Heller has to dig into the past, his own and Marcus’s, before the girl’s time runs out.
With Alexa and her friends, Finder has done a, like, totally, thorough job of capturing the nuances of teen-speak, the blase, even bored sentence fragments uttered by Generation Text. (He graciously credits his daughter, Emma, for the assist.) And with Heller, Finder paints an appealing hero, engaging, in part, because he’s not a superhero. Comparisons with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher are inevitable, but Heller’s actions are never those of a lone cowboy. He’s human enough to seek and accept help from his feisty digital forensic expert, a former Special Ops colleague, and even a spacey vegan receptionist, whose surprising knowledge of tattoos provides a vital clue.
Racing alongside Nick Heller, you’ll want one more chapter, then another, and then one more. You know he has to prevail; you just need to know how.
Blumenstock is a Washington area writer.
By Joseph Finder
390 pp. $25.99