Will Ferguson has long demonstrated an enduring fondness for the con. From his Leacock-winning debut Generica (later retitled Happiness™) to the oft-overlooked period novel Spanish Fly to the Nigerian fraud at the heart of his Scotiabank Giller Prize winner, 419, Ferguson uses the con and related crimes to explore fundamental conflicts at the heart of his characters and to demonstrate just how far those characters can be pushed before snapping.
The Finder begins with the arrival of a foreigner on Hateruma Island, the southernmost point of Japan. Alerted to his presence, Police Inspector Atsushi Shimada attempts to make contact with the stranger, only to find himself pursuing the man across the island, finally finding his corpse in the closed-for-the-season observatory. A journal near the body seems to clear things up: the dead man is Billy Moore, who, rather than face punishment for his crimes, has chosen to kill himself.
Except Gaddy Rhodes, a senior investigator with Interpol’s International Crimes Agency, isn’t buying it. Rhodes, who has been pursuing a man she refers to as the Finder for more than a decade, thinks the suicide is “a feint … an act of misdirection.” The man she has been seeking is methodical, careful, always one step ahead.
Rather than focusing on Rhodes and her quest, however, The Finder shifts its focus to Thomas Rafferty, a dissolute travel writer who ends up in Christchurch, New Zealand, the day before an earthquake. (Any resemblance between Rafferty and Ferguson, a noted travel writer himself, is entirely deliberate, though a matter of degree, according to Ferguson’s author’s note.) Rafferty himself is in pursuit of his former partner Rebecca, an ethnologist.
It’s in the rubble from the earthquake that Rafferty encounters the Finder. The man’s face, so innocuous as to be completely forgettable, rings a faint bell for Rafferty – something about the camps in Rwanda in the days after the genocide. And so The Finder unfolds, through seemingly chance encounters, shadowy conversations and mysterious disappearances, from backstory in Rwanda and Japan to confrontations in the middle of the Australian outback.
Ferguson demonstrates the keen attention to place crucial to the travel writer’s trade: local lore and mores are explained in considerable depth, milieus are vividly depicted with an eye for the smallest of details. It’s interesting and evocative, but at times it becomes almost overwhelming, with narrative momentum slowing down for long passages of description and setting. The shifting between characters also seems to impede the narrative momentum.
It’s only late in the book, in the outback, that the reader will realize what has happened: any sense that the book has been a thriller has been a dodge, a masterful bit of misdirection in and of itself. While promising a thriller, Ferguson has instead delivered a powerful, if subdued, novel of thwarted dreams, loss and lingering pain, soul-deep conflicts, and the strong, often faltering drive for connection and redemption.
The Finder is, finally, the best sort of con: one that pays off and leaves the victim – the reader – grateful for having been taken for a ride.