INGRID THOFT was born in Boston and is a graduate of Wellesley College. Her interest in the PI life and her desire to create a believable PI character led her to the certificate program in private investigation at the University of Washington. She lives in Seattle with her husband.
A Conversation with Ingrid Thoft
1. Tell us a little bit about your heroine, Fina Ludlow. How do you see her, and how did you begin to conceptualize her?
I wanted to create a strong, funny and flawed female protagonist who would push the limits and do all the things I’m too well-mannered to do! Like so many readers, I was fascinated by the Lisbeth Salander character in the Stieg Larsson books. She is strong, brash, and violent and operates outside of society’s norms. That character was born of abuse and neglect and didn’t have a “normal” family. I wondered what would happen if you created a character who was also strong minded and independent, but came from a domineering family unit and had to operate within the bounds of that family. If you have nothing holding you back and nothing to lose—like Lisbeth Salander—your actions can be extreme. But if you’re trying to operate within a family system and maintain your standing in that family, you have more to lose, and the stakes can be quite high.
2. You actually attended and graduated from the University of Washington certificate program in private investigation. What drew you to this program?
I sought out the program when I made the decision to create a character who is a professional investigator rather than an amateur detective. This decision was based on the limitations I encountered in an unpublished series I had already written featuring an amateur sleuth. Over time, I found her amateur status to be problematic as she could only stumble over so many bodies before it strains credulity! So I made the main character a professional investigator, which opened up a lot of possibilities and gives me options as the series progresses.
Having made that choice, I wanted to learn the rules of private investigation before I created a character who broke them. Fina needed to ring true and use tactics and procedures that PIs actually use. Fina takes liberties with the law, and some of her tactics might be frowned upon by other PIs, but her actions are purposeful, not the result of poor training. When creating the character I made conscious decisions about her choices based on what I learned in the certificate program.
3. What was the strangest thing you learned at PI school and did you learn any tactics that have come in useful in your day-to-day life?
I learned an enormous amount in the program, from the mundane to the bizarre. For example, I learned how vast the field of private investigation is in terms of the number of specialties it offers including accident investigation, domestic investigation, cyber investigations, forensics and private security, just to name a few. I never realized how many areas of expertise there are.
In terms of strangeness, a couple of examples stand out. We had a number of guest speakers including a scientist from the Washington State Crime Lab who discussed a case related to the eruption of Mount St. Helens. A suspect’s alibi was disproved based on the type of ash found in his car air filter; the ash placed him at a scene that he had denied visiting, but there was no other explanation. It was mindboggling to think that aside from the death and destruction directly caused by the eruption, it played a critical role in a murder investigation when coupled with solid investigative work.
Some of the presentations given by my fellow students fell into the curious category. The topics varied from firearms to surveillance to my own topic of private investigation in fiction. One woman reported on fecal animal evidence, a topic I found to be both strange and disgusting. I wouldn’t care to study animal poop all day, but if it helps solve crimes, I’m glad someone else wants to!
In terms of utilizing investigative tactics in my everyday life, luckily, the need rarely arises. There are certain things I learned, however, that I do heed: cross the street in crosswalks (it strengthens your lawsuit if you’re hit) and never drive in front of a semi on the highway, since more than 50% of them have faulty brakes. A little macabre, but useful information nonetheless.
4. With LOYALTY, you are combining a lot of elements from classic noir PI stories with a modern-day heroine. What to you are the essential elements of a great PI mystery yarn? What techniques does a modern-day PI need to be adept at in order to function well?
I think the most essential element of a great PI story is a great PI. Readers have to be engaged by the character and care about what happens to her (or him.) If readers don’t care about the PI, you’re finished before you’ve even started. I like stories that have twists and turns and a variety of suspects. I read and watch a lot of mysteries, and a common element in satisfying mysteries is that people are generally up to no good. If you watch a classic British mystery that takes place in a small English village, you’ll notice that most of the characters are keeping some sort of secret. Their “sins” will vary by degree, but there’s nothing more boring than a group of characters who are all well-behaved.
Modern-day PIs need to be comfortable with technology. A good PI will use every tool at her disposal, and nowadays, many of those tools are technologically based. That said, a lot of investigative work still relies on hard work and perseverance. Humans are at the center of every crime, and though technology helps solve crimes, good investigators have to rely on their instincts and emotions to unlock the behavior of other people.
5. You grew up in the Boston area. Were you familiar with the back streets and seedy neighborhoods that Fina has to work in to do her job?
I was born in Boston, but I actually grew up in a suburb north of the city. However, Boston played a significant role in my family’s life. Both of my parents worked in the city, and my older sisters went to school there. My parents were also proponents of exposing us to various cultural offerings, so it wasn’t unusual for us to spend a day in the city seeing the sights, eating at interesting restaurants, visiting a museum or attending a concert. I didn’t grow up in a seedy neighborhood—rather a picturesque seaside town—but I’ve done a lot of research, and I’m familiar with the places about which I write. Reading the local paper helps me understand what is going on in the city, and certainly, the Internet provides a wealth of information. Real estate listings, in particular, can tell you a lot about a certain area.
6. Fina has to take on her own family throughout her debut novel. Were the Ludlows based on any of your own personal experiences?
Thankfully, the Ludlows don’t resemble my own family. I’m fascinated by families and the social systems that shape our behavior, and I’m intrigued by the choices people make when dealing with life’s gray areas. Books that make me wonder, “what would I do in the same situation?” are compelling reads, and I wanted to provide that to readers.
One of the motivations for creating the character of Elaine, Fina’s mother, was the overwhelmingly positive relationship I have with my own mother. I wondered what it would be like if my mother were the polar opposite of how she actually is. I’ve had the benefit of a mother who is loving and generous. What would it be like to have one who isn’t? I’m intrigued by these types of questions, and fiction provides a wonderful opportunity to play with these ideas.
7. The entire Ludlow family is distinct. Can you describe the other members of the family including Fina’s parents, brothers and niece?
The Ludlow family is led by Carl, the patriarch, and Elaine, the matriarch. Carl and Elaine built what they have from scratch. They both came from modest beginnings and have amassed their wealth through hard work and years of effort. Carl is opinionated, headstrong, and not overly emotional. Fina is torn between wanting to please her father and wanting to get out from under his thumb.
Fina’s relationship with her mother is difficult, and they don’t like one another very much. Elaine is manipulative and passive aggressive and is not well suited to motherhood. Some of this is a function of her personality and wiring, and some of it may be due to the loss of her first child, a girl named Josephine. Josie died when she was a toddler, and her death had an enormous impact on both Carl and Elaine.
Fina’s brothers are Rand, Scotty and Matthew. They are attorneys with the family firm, and all of them are smart and ambitious. Rand is the most difficult of the three. Scotty has the softest touch, although he isn’t a pushover, and Matthew is a bachelor who loves to work hard and play hard. Rand is married to Melanie (who goes missing in LOYALTY), a shallow woman who spends most of her time shopping and maintaining her social standing. Their only child, Haley, is a fifteen-year-old troublemaker. Scotty’s wife, Patty, is warm and no-nonsense and enjoys a good relationship with Fina. She and Scotty have three young boys, and Fina takes her role as aunt very seriously.
8. What’s the next thing you’re working on? Any hint on what’s next for Fina and will we continue to see her family play a big role?
Currently I’m writing the second book in the Fina Ludlow series. I’m exploring a number of interesting themes, and the Ludlows continue to complicate Fina’s life. As she does in LOYALTY, Fina will be forced to navigate sensitive issues and manage difficult relationships while maintaining a steady diet of junk food, diet soda and romantic interludes with Milloy and Cristian.