Danny Goodman, the main character of Joseph Finder’s new thriller “Suspicion,’’ is a widower with a smart and lovely girlfriend and a stubborn daughter of high-school age. As the novel opens Goodman, a historian whose current project involves Jay Gould, a 19th-century American “robber baron,” has used up his book advance and faces the prospect of having his daughter dropped from the rolls of her exclusive Boston private school. His financial desperation — and his desperate attempt to shield his daughter from disappointment — leads him to accept a large loan from Thomas Galvin, a wealthy local money manager and the father of his daughter’s best friend at school.
Almost immediately Goodman finds himself the target of investigation by two DEA agents on suspicion of money-laundering for a Mexican drug cartel. There appears to be no disputing it. Galvin, it seems, handles billions of dollars for the Mexicans and that check he wrote to Goodman technically links the hapless historian to the illegal financial operation.
The agents give him a choice, which sets off the book’s central action: Serve as a cooperating witness in a dangerous skein of surveillance of Galvin and his finances or become indicted as part of the criminal enterprise (and thus become a target of the cartel).
It takes Goodman only a little while to decide to cooperate with the agents. (At a local Starbucks he punches in the name “Sinaloa cartel” and brings up photographs of “cartel soldiers chainsawed into sections, legs and heads and torsos, arrayed on the ground like the parts of an expertly carved Thanksgiving turkey.”)
It’s not surprising that Goodman, after struggling a little with the prospect of prison or being carved up like a turkey, chooses to cooperate. His first task — planting a listening device in the home office of his money-man benefactor — comes fairly early in the novel and sets the suspense level to a pitch that will keep even the coolest readers sweating. Soon after, the agents push him to download financial records and more from his benefactor’s cellphone.
When he’s just about reached the end of his rope, the amateur Goodman, who has turned out to be a pretty good government spy, finds himself chasing Galvin downhill on a dangerous Aspen ski run, the terrors of his situation increased ever more drastically.
Two-thirds of the way through the novel, I felt pretty much like Goodman, hurtling along with him and seeing no way to avoid a disastrous end. Despite the ordinariness of the material — troubled father, annoying daughter, all of that — Finder twists the plot to reveal secrets within secrets and dangers within dangers, and turns a mundane Boston existence into something threatening and fearful.
But at the point near the end when Goodman goes to the stuff of history in order to try and find a way to stay alive, I found myself just a bit incredulous. What would the subject of his biography, white-collar criminal Jay Gould, do? In this way Goodman finds a potential, if incredibly desperate, solution to his troubles, all too neat for my taste.
But when you’re caught within the propulsive pages of a neatly constructed novel you pretty much just give yourself over to it. So after a moment, I said to myself, OK, OK, what would Jay Gould do? And hoped Goodman — and his creator — would find a satisfactory way out.Alan Cheuse, a book commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.