Jeffrey Hillard’s Note: The following is an interview with local award-winning novelist, Trace Conger, whose “A Mr. Finn Novel” series of crime fiction deliver a whopping combination of local settings and hard-boiled, noir-oriented action. Conger’s blend of the tragi-comic is exceedingly shrewd and totally memorable, leaving readers with that earnest desire to follow Finn Harding through future novels. Conger’s first novel, The Shadow Broker, published in 2014, received the Shamus Award for Best Independent P.I. Novel at Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention . His second Mr. Finn novel, Scar Tissue, has just been released. The interviewer, Anna Drees, is currently a student at Mount St. Joseph University.
Anna Drees: Your first novel, The Shadow Broker, is full of irony. The protagonist, Mr. Finn Harding, might be confronted curiously with the option or impetus to harm a man either in light of the dangerous and frequently-subversive work he’s in or in self-defense, and then when he gets a call from the elementary school that is daughter is sick, Finn rushes to get her and takes her home and tends and takes care of her. A major character, Little Freddie, tortures people, yet he is a man of faith and wants to support youths by purchasing a bag from the school. How do they reconcile or separate out these two seemingly contradictory parts of their personality? Do they have some certain of “code” that they live by?
Trace Conger: This reconciliation is a big theme throughout the novel. What will we compromise ourselves for? Both men feel as though anyone who comes in contact with them (i.e. Banks in the underground room) is because of their own actions, so neither feels too guilty about it. Little Freddie mentions in the book that “these people get what’s coming to them.” Neither could really reconcile hurting innocent people, but in their minds, the people they are sent to kill aren’t innocent. They are waist-deep in the criminal world, so they see it as just “thinning out the herd.” I wouldn’t say they have a “code” they live by (such as Dexter would), but they (especially Freddie) don’t really see themselves as bad people, because they feel justified in what they’re doing. Little Freddie is already in this world and Finn is slowly being brought into it. That’s why he struggles with it at first, but is able to compartmentalize it throughout the novel.
Anna Drees: I felt like the book hinted that Mr. Finn’s father, Albert, has some sort of skill set that might be associated with the mob – or mob tactics. For example, he knew that someone was tailing him and drove around down town to lose him and Albert had $20,000 hidden under his cabin in Maine. Did Albert ever play a part in the mob?
Trace Conger: Great catch on Albert. He is one of my favorite characters to write. Yes, I intentionally left his past ambiguous, but wanted readers to know there was more to him than meets the eye. Even Finn isn’t aware of the extent of his past. Albert plays a big part in the second novel, Scar Tissue. We learn where he got that cash under his boathouse, why he has it, why he was living in a nursing home, and why Albert is a bit more “experienced” than he lets on.
Anna Drees: Mr. Finn is incredibly good at finding people who do not want to be found. This is basically the foundation for the whole series, you’ve said. Little Freddie tells Mr. Finn how his wife and daughter were raped and killed and the people that did it still send him postcards about how his wife and daughter screamed. I was curious as to why Little Freddie didn’t hire Mr. Finn to find the people involved in his wife and daughters murder.
Trace Conger: After Little Freddie kills Bishop in The Shadow Broker, he up and disappears. What is not evident in this first book (intentionally) is that Little Freddie has gone out west himself to find the people responsible for the death of his family. As to the reason why he didn’t hire Finn, I think it’s because he takes things very personally and this is something he wants to handle himself (it won’t turn out well for those involved). I’m working on the third book in the series now, and plan to write a novella (a shorter book) that follows Little Freddie out west to find those responsible for his family’s death.
Anna Drees: Most people have a moral compass that would not have them do the stuff that Mr. Finn does. Even though on the surface it is the money that motivates him, what is it internally that drives him to involve himself in these situations?
Trace Conger: Finn Harding is a very flawed character. He’s struggling to make ends meet and he desperately wants to be with his family. The revocation of his PI license and his split with his ex-wife Brooke have made this impossible. Finn does have a moral compass in the book, but it’s tested because of these circumstances. His moral compass plays a big part in the third book, The Prison Guard’s Son, in which he’s hired to find and dispatch someone in the witness protection program.
Anna Drees: The Shadow Broker repeatedly alludes to the fact that Mr. Finn possesses a skill to do what no one else can. Mr. Finn even says that he is like “deaths GPS.” I know he is a former private investigator, but how did he develop and recognize this ability? What pushed him in this vain?
Trace Conger: Finn developed this skill set through his former life as a PI. Most of what PIs do depends on their problem solving skills. He has to think of ways to locate people who are trying to cover their tracks, so it’s really just his experience with prior cases. I always try to figure out real ways to do this. I hate when writers use some device, say, like a hacker finding all the info out of thin air. Finn has to really work for it. He has to really work at finding information.
Anna Drees: In reading a novel, when we start with the age of a character as an adult, so much of what happened to that character in his or her childhood affects who he or she will become. Was there something in Finn Harding’s childhood or past that impacted him in such a strong way to compel him to work in these dangerous situations and associate with people that have the potential to turn on him and kill him? What makes him such a risk taker? It has to be more than the money.
Trace Conger: There isn’t a specific experience that has led Finn down this path; it’s more him biting off more than he can chew with the Bishop case. He never intended to kill anyone, but after being drawn into the case, he rationalizes the actions as appropriate. Most of that is being driven by his desire for money, but more so what money represents, which is the opportunity to get back his family. He rationalizes that if he can just make a few dollars more (by taking these cases) he’ll have the means to get “back on track” and support this family in a legitimate way. What some readers might not pick up is that by the end of the book Finn has made $0. He has to pay Dunbar off at the end of the book and what he’s left with is a tarnished soul and absolutely nothing to show for it. This is intentional, and what I tried to do was show that after risking his life, and his family’s life, he has gained nothing.
Anna Drees: Crime/suspense novels are my favorite type of books. What led or inspired you to write such a dark yet funny and family-oriented book?
Trace Conger: I love dark fiction, crime, suspense and horror all included. That’s what I read as a kid (nothing too dark, but age appropriate fiction) and have always loved it. I’m thrilled that my daughter reads the Goosebumps books for the same reason. As for the humor, I think there is humor in everything, even death. Not slapstick, but it’s how we deal with things. That’s why you’ll see people laughing at a funeral. There is humor in most of my work, some more subtle than others. As for the family aspect, that’s where I am in life at the moment. I’m married and have a four and a seven year old. When I think of what scares me, it’s something happening to any of them. That’s why that theme is such a big part of the novel. Harm coming to his family scares the heck out of Finn and motivates him to do what he does.
Anna Drees: Francis Ford Coppola said in an interview that when he fleshed out Vito Corleone for the screenplay of “Godfather I,” he studied several famous mobsters. He then said that Vito was an amalgam of several, drawing out specific traits to form who Vito would become. Who was your inspiration for the protagonist, Mr. Finn and what was your process?
Trace Conger: Finn is based loosely on a real person. Years ago I met a retired Private Investigator who, at a point when he was down on his luck financially, accepted an illegal job for the money. He never told me what the job was (but I know it wasn’t too bad), but he said he felt horrible for doing it, and after getting paid a good sum for the case he went back to legitimate work and never looked back. He knew that if he got caught, he’d lose his license. Luckily for him, he didn’t get caught. But I always wondered, what if he did get caught? And that’s where Finn came from.