Mysteries of Faith: Ingrid Thoft on ‘Duplicity’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m joined in Monday musings by the delightful Ingrid Thoft.

Ingrid is the author, most recently, of Duplicity (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)—the fourth book in her critically acclaimed series featuring Boston PI Fina Ludlow; previous titles include Loyalty, Identity, and the Shamus Award-winning Brutality. Ingrid was born in Boston and is a graduate of Wellesley College; she later completed a certificate program in private investigation at the University of Washington. Ingrid now makes her home in Seattle.

Author Ingrid Thoft.

Praise for Duplicity:

“A winning addition to an entertaining series….Thoft’s fourth Fina Ludlow outing (after Brutality, 2015) finds the tenacious Fina in fighting form, juggling personal and professional demands to attain justice despite the cost. A winning addition to an entertaining series.”—Booklist

“Thoft gracefully delivers an action-packed plot loaded with realistic dialogue and believable characters…weaves in several well-devised twists … [illustrates] the complexity of family relationships.”—Associated Press

From the publisher:

Gutsy Boston P.I. Fina Ludlow returns with a case that puts her faith to the test—in the latest addition to the critically acclaimed series by Ingrid Thoft.

When Ceci Renard hires Ludlow and Associates to sue the hip new church that she believes has brainwashed her daughter, Fina Ludlow is assigned to the case. Covenant Rising Church has all the trappings of a less-than-holy organization: a slick young pastor and his comely wife; fancy houses and luxury cars; and devoted congregants who seem eager to part with their money. Fina wonders if Ceci disapproves of Covenant Rising’s theology or the pastor’s ability to solicit generous donations—until a prominent church member dies unexpectedly. Fina’s investigation requires her to delve into the woman’s life—both in and out of Covenant Rising—and ask a host of difficult questions. Is the pastor leading his flock astray? Did the church have a hand in the death or were there less savory elements in the woman’s life outside the parish?

The case proves to be a complicated morass of misplaced loyalties and questionable motivations, rivaled only by the current state of the Ludlow family. The return of eldest brother Rand sets in motion an explosive showdown that threatens the very fabric that holds the family together, forcing Fina to confront the true meaning of faith.


Now, Ingrid drops the dime on Duplicity

John Valeri: What first inspired the idea for Duplicity – and how do you see this book working as both a standalone thriller and a continuation of the overall series story arc?

Ingrid Thoft: My books always start with what an interviewer coined a “third-rail issue.”  I told her I was going to steal the phrase because I think it sums up perfectly what I look for when developing a new book.  Fina and her family are at the center of the story, of course, and there’s a more traditional mystery that unfolds, but I really like to focus on a concept or issue that will be engaging and thought-provoking for readers.

For instance, in the third book in the series, Brutality, I looked at the issue of sports-related concussions.  These injuries raise questions beyond the obvious:  How much are spectators willing to pay for entertainment that damages other people?  How important is tradition (playing or cheering for a sports team) when we know about the negative consequences?  What sway does money have (the NFL, anyone?) when it comes to making decisions about the health and welfare of others?  I love these sorts of questions because they don’t have one easy answer.

When I was researching ideas for what became Duplicity, a popular evangelical church in the Seattle area was in the process of imploding.  The charismatic pastor was accused of various wrongdoings, but what was so interesting about the story to me was the enormous cost paid by the congregants.  Members of the church had poured their hearts, souls, and money into this institution only to end up feeling betrayed and abandoned.  They were devastated, and their circumstance suggested a third-rail issue to me:  What happens when you put your trust in someone or something, and they aren’t worthy?  When should you substitute your own judgment for the judgment of others?  What is the role of critical thinking when it comes to faith?

In terms of how the book works as a standalone, I have a wonderful editor who always ensures that readers who are new to the series don’t feel lost when they pick up the latest book.  Every book should hold its own—whether it’s the first or the fourteenth in a series—and I hope that even if someone only reads Duplicity, he or she finds it to be a great read.

JV: In this book, Fina investigates the Covenant Rising Church – an institution that is accused of brainwashing one of its members. How is this reflective of the controversial rise of mega-churches — and in what ways does using the lens of fiction make such real-life social issues more accessible? 

IT: I think personal stories are the best access points to the thornier issues in life.  When it comes to social and political concerns, my sense is that people change their minds about things when they can put a face to the issue.  For instance, I’ve read articles in which people have said their opinion about gay marriage changed when they met and developed a friendship with a gay couple.  Suddenly, it was no longer an abstract concept, but rather something that had an impact of real human beings.

This is why fiction is so important; it allows us to experience different things and wiggle into those uncomfortable places where we might not otherwise find ourselves.  I’m not a regular church-goer, and writing Duplicity gave me the opportunity to contemplate the role of organized religion in one’s life.  What happens when the center of your spiritual and social life is a source of controversy?  How do you separate the spiritual from the practical?

I watched a lot of sermons on YouTube in the course of my research and found them fascinating.  Mega-churches are enormous, powerful, rich entities, which make for strange bedfellows when you consider they are built on the concepts of faith, and in many instances, obedience.  I’m skeptical of large organizations that tell you how to be “good,” whether it’s a church, a government or a social organization.  One of the challenges in the book was making sure that Fina’s skepticism didn’t cloud her judgment during the investigation.

JV: The Ludlow family’s dysfunction is a recurring theme. How does Rand’s return allow you to further explore these relationship dynamics – and in what ways do the consequences of this lend themselves to the underlying idea of defining faith?

IT: The first place any of us learn about faith is within the context of our families.  I don’t mean religious faith, but rather the idea that you can believe in and rely upon someone, and they will not let you down.  Young children believe that their parents will pick them up at the end of day care.  When a parent promises to come to a soccer game or school play, kids rely upon that.  Of course, promises aren’t always kept (for a variety of reasons,) and learning to live with that is part of growing up.  But the “promises” in every family are different, and the Ludlows are a perfect example.  Their family edict has always been that whatever trouble you get into, the family will handle it and do everything to minimize the consequences.  This is the family code, and every family has one, but for Fina, the price of the family code becomes too great.  The belief that the Ludlows will circle the wagons becomes problematic when harm is done within that circle.

Bringing Rand back into the family fold allowed me to force this issue.  Fina has to seriously contemplate her place within the family and the consequences of doing what’s expected of her (by her father in particular) as opposed to what she believes is right.  This issue is what people in religious entities and organized religion grapple with on a regular basis.  If your church says that women shouldn’t hold positions of power, for instance, and you disagree, where does that leave you?  I don’t envy people who were raised in a strong religious tradition only to find their own beliefs evolving in a different direction over time.  I think that is a lonely, painful place to find one’s self.

JV: You grew up in Boston, which serves as the backdrop for these stories. In your opinion, how does setting enhance narrative – and what is it about Beantown in particular that allows you to achieve the desired ambiance?

IT: I think setting is hugely important, and in the best books, I think that the setting is another character.  Mysteries set in Scandinavia do a wonderful job of creating a compelling setting, which is why I love to read them while curled up on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate!  When writers don’t give setting its due, I think it it’s a missed opportunity.

As you mentioned, I was born and raised in the Boston area, which made it the natural choice in which to set the series, even though I’ve lived in Seattle for nine years.  I think the place you were born is encoded into your DNA (it’s where you learned to drive, had your first kiss, cheered your first pro sports team,) and I like to draw on that.

The city itself offers myriad opportunities for creating layered, interesting characters who inhabit various mini worlds.  There are so many world-class things about Boston: higher education, its hospitals, the arts, professional sports teams, as well as a strong sense of pride and history that shows up in things like the multiple generations of families who serve in the fire and police departments.  Boston has a global reputation, and on any given day a visitor from the other side of the world could be seen by a specialist in a top-notch hospital or watch a baseball game sitting above the Green Monster.  I wanted Fina’s adventures to reflect that diversity.  She may spend time interviewing a potential client in the ICU at Mass General or visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but you’ll also find her at Kelly’s Roast Beef on the beach eating fried clams and a lobster roll.  It’s fun for me and readers to ride along with her as she dips into the various sub-cultures of the city.

JV: You took a PI certificate program to ensure that you were creating a realistic protagonist. How do you feel that experience has translated onto the page – and what have you found to be the key(s) to balancing a sense of authenticity with creative license?

IT: The private investigation course at the University of Washington was terrific and really gave me a solid background in the practice of being a PI.  I enrolled in the course because I wanted Fina to be realistic, and also, because I wanted her to make choices in her work from a place of competency not ignorance.  Fina doesn’t always follow the law or the rules, but any deviations she makes are a conscious choice.   Learning the ropes also enables me to lay out an investigation as a professional would, which lends some realism to the story.

The key to balancing authenticity with creative license is that a realistic portrayal of many things is actually quite boring so you have to err on the side of being more creative.  For example, if you were to record a conversation between two people, it would probably be full of long pauses, verbal hiccups and a lot of meandering chatter.  Writing realistic dialogue requires you to edit out the boring, real-life stuff and get to the crux of the matter.  This also applies to the portrayal of Fina’s job.  Any cop or PI will tell you that some parts of the job are mundane and repetitive—filing reports, doing stakeouts—so my job is to minimize the boring without making it too fantastical.  Readers don’t want to sit by idly while Fina searches databases on the Internet, but it would be unrealistic to suggest that that isn’t part of her job as a PI.

JV: Leave us with a teaser: what comes next?

IT: I have a standalone coming next, which is a departure from the series, but very exciting.  It’s a story of psychological suspense with a mystery centered around a family.  I love writing about families, and it’s been fun creating a new dysfunctional group!

I also have the next Fina book in the works.  I can’t tell you much, just that the family drama continues, and I’ve found a very engaging third-rail issue with which to grapple.  Readers won’t be disappointed!


With thanks to Ingrid Thoft for her generosity of time and thought and to Laura Rossi, President of Laura Rossi Public Relations, for coordinating this interview.

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