I should have checked in with Patty weeks ago. I guess I was figuring that if [Sean] was back on drugs, she’d let me know. I obviously figured wrong. I was angry at myself for not staying more closely in touch.
He saved my life once; I should have been able to save his.
When you get right down to it, readers don't know that much about Nick Heller at this point—it's not that kind of series. One benefit of this is that it's super-easy for Finder to drop in a character or two and say they're an important part of Heller's life without having to tweak their backstory a lot.
Sean and Heller served together, Sean came back with traumatic brain injury and, like so many, was given opioids to help. Like too many, he became addicted and battled that addiction for years. Ultimately, the opioids won. (this isn't me spoiling anything, it's the first few pages. I think it's even on the cover).
While Heller does what he can to help the widow and her kids (his honorary nephews), he takes on a new client. At the funeral, he meets a member of the Kimball family—they own the company that makes the brand of opioids that destroyed Sean's life. She tells Heller that she attends as many such funerals as she can, in sort of an act of protest. She wants Heller to break into her father's records to find an old study that shows the company knew how addictive their drug was and released it anyway while covering up the study.
A chance to make some money, a chance to do some good—but more than that, a chance to take down the company that hooked Sean*? You bet our favorite private spy is going to go for that. He's barely started the job when he runs into someone else looking into the family—another important character from Heller's past, someone who worked with him in the Pentagon.
* Sure, another company's product probably would've done the same thing to Sean, but Kimball Pharmaceutical held this particular gun.
From there, things get complicated and twisty—involving corporate shenanigans, international twists, family intrigue and big secrets tied to big money. All of which combine to make this a precarious situation for Heller. But Sean saved his life once, so...
I shouldn't forget to add that there's something going on with Heller's actual nephew and Heller's imprisoned father. I was glad to see the nephew again and would like to see more of him. His father? Well, he was useful to Nick, but man, I could go years without having to put up with him (which I think is the reaction Finder's going for...if not, it should be because he nails it).
She tilted her head and smiled. “You went after this bomber?”
“Yes, of course you did,” she said. “You are sheepdog.”
“I’m a Sheepdog,” I said dubiously.
“I read somewhere there are three kinds people—is sheep, is wolves, and is sheepdog. Most people sheep—just kind and gentle people. They never hurt others, except by accident. Then there is predators—the wolves. They prey on weak people. They feed on sheep. These are the bad people."
“And then is Sheepdogs. They protect flock. They have drive to do this. They have gift of aggression."
She said, “You are not sheep. You are not wolf. You are sheepdog. You are guard dog, not attack dog.”
This is why we like Heller, because Natalya (soon to be trophy wife about to marry into the Kimball family) here sums it up nicely—he has the drive to protect, and the aggression to do it. We see that on display in all sorts of ways in this book (and in the previous ones). If he was all about attack and aggression, he still might be fun to read about, but readers only get invested in him because of that drive to protect.
The other reason we latch on to Heller (I think, maybe it's just me) is that he's fallible. He'll have a perfect plan that he's executing well, but because that's the way that life goes, something happens to totally derail the plan. And, unlike other thriller heroes, when things go wrong for Heller, he has to scramble to stay alive and to find a way to get the results he's looking for—and doesn't always succeed at that.
House on Fire has plenty of good action, a lot of excuses for Finder to make points about the opioid crisis—and our reactions to it—(and I appreciated him taking those opportunities), some good Heller backstory, plus a few satisfying twists. This was a good, solid read.
I do think the ending was a bit too abrupt and Finder didn't wrap up everything as satisfactorily as I'm used to from him. So I didn't rate this as highly as I would've expected. Still, I'm glad I read it and can't imagine a Heller/Finder/thriller fan won't enjoy this read. And I'll be first in line for Nick Heller #5 in a couple of years.