Ingrid Thoft steps to the fore with her Boston 'tec Fina Ludlow

"Her novels about the mercurial Boston PI Fina Ludlow have critics crowning Thoft the next-gen heir to Grafton and Paretsky."

Written by Hank Phillippi Ryan

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Originally published in the Summer 2015 edition of Mystery Scene magazine.
Ingrid Thoft, in a black wetsuit and with 50 pounds of scuba gear strapped to her back, stood on the edge of the idling powerboat's dive platform, held her regulator and mask to her face with one hand, and took a giant stride forward into the water. Kind of like walking the plank! she thought. She heard the splash as her husband joined her in the turquoise waters off the Kona coast of Hawaii.
   The dark water, illuminated with slashes of powerful undersea spotlights, reflected every speck and glimmer of the ocean life, the plankton, and other tiny creatures surrounding them as they descended. A shift in the water. Ingrid turned, curious. And against the rubber of her wetsuit, a -- touch?
   Through the thick plastic of her facemask, Ingrid saw who'd arrived to check on the human intruders. A manta ray. Ingrid remembered to breathe, in, out, working her rubber flippers to keep her upright.
   A manta ray.
   A manta ray, maybe 12 feet from wingtip to wingtip. Is this what frightens this author of three—and soon to be four—suspenseful and successful thrillers? Taking that giant stride into creature-filled waters?

   "One of the scariest things I've ever done," Ingrid told me, "was write my first manuscript and submit it to agents. Writing—like any creative endeavor—requires you to put yourself out there and welcome the judgment of others. It can be discouraging, and you have to have a thick skin."
   Talk about discouraging—her first leap into the treacherous waters of publishing did not go well. She wrote "two and a half manuscripts in a cozy-ish series featuring an amateur sleuth." They didn't sell, so she decided to swim in a different direction.
   Problem was, her agent didn't like the new book, either. "'Not dark enough,' she said," Thoft remembers. So Thoft reworked and rewrote and revised. Resubmitted.
   "Too dark," the agent said.
   A good story now, especially since that manuscript turned out to be the bestselling Loyalty, starring the rule-breaking hard-drinking, fierce, and fiercely independent Boston investigator Fina Ludlow.
   "One of the challenges and appeals of scuba diving is the need to stay calm in constantly changing circumstances," Thoft told me. "You only have so much air and freaking out is not in your best interest! If you can master your fears—of sharks, darkness, currents, to name a few—you gain access to an amazing world that few people ever see."
   And that's what happened to you in your writing, I reminded her.
   "I think you have to have a thick skin, there too," she said. "I think you have to be open to feedback, and you need to do your
best to evaluate it. My litmus test: Does the feedback make it better? Or does it just make it different? Because you could listen to 20 different people and they could have 20 different things to say, so you could spend your life changing things."
   So how does she decide what stays and what goes?
   "When you really know your characters, its not such a hard decision," she says. "I feel like I know my characters. I have such a strong sense of them, its not hard for me to figure out how they would respond."
   Like so many of us, Thoft says the role she's always wanted was "author." And like so many of us, it wasn't her first real-life job.
   That was at a radio station in coastal Massachusetts, ripping wires and running the board for a Sunday talk show. She's worked in human resources at Harvard, did a stint with an interactive software company. But then—with a new idea and a new main character taking shape in her mind—she enrolled in the Private Investigation certificate program at the University of Washington. To learn the tricks of the trade. And make her next character come to life.
   It worked. Fina's now "in development" for a TV series on ABC. The Boston-based investigator has been compared to V.I. Warshawski, and Kinsey Milhone, even Lisbeth Salander.
   So how did that happen? Kinsey Milhone's creator, Sue Grafton, once told me Kinsey reveals herself to her, gradually, as the stories take shape. Thoft says her Fina Ludlow was also not fully formed from the beginning.
   "I don't know if other writers have this experience, but I remember very little about the moment I sat down to create her," Thoft said. "When you have Salander—who is an outlier—she's fascinating, but she doesn't have to fit in. I wanted to figure out how you manage someone who doesn't have traditional values—yet still can be very much a part of her family of origin and [involved with] her nieces and nephews, in particular. I was trying to find my way in how she manages—and she's still figuring it out. Fina has been known to break the law, but not because she doesn't know better; she just sees the law as optional. I knew I wanted her to possess certain qualities like being independent and headstrong, but I also wanted her to struggle with complicated family dynamics."
   And family dynamics—whether it's the loyalty families demand, the identity each family member desires, or the brutality they can inflict on each other—are at the core of
all Thoft's books. The hard-core lawyer father, the nasty and manipulative mother, the brothers, each with this own brand of problem, and Fina—all attractive, striving, competitive, destructive, and smart.
   Like Thoft's own family? Nope, Thoft says. "I'm close to my family, but my experience is different—and that gives me the freedom to dive into a different dynamic." But as the moment for the publication of her 2013 debut Loyalty drew near, Thoft began to fret about her biting portrayal of Fina Ludlow's mother, Elaine. She asked her own mom—a school psychologist—whether she was concerned that their friends and relatives would think an unhappy daughter was dissing their family. Not at all, her mother assured her. But Thoft decided "better safe"—and now readers can read, in the acknowledgements, "just so there is no confusion" she bears no resemblance.
   Family loyalty—the caring for each other—is never far from the center of Thoft's thrillers. She's the youngest of four, and her husband of 14 years (they met in high school and have been together for 23 years) is also the youngest of four. "There's this sense of people always having your back. You could fight at home, but at school you're on the same team. No matter what. I'm not sure if I'd been able to write the Ludlows if I'd been an only child."
   She says "it's almost a psychological thing," a fascination with human behavior, something she and her mother share. "We have an interest in systems, be they family systems or companies, communities, country—I find that really fascinating. It's about how when one person changes the dance step, it changes the dance. What's the dance the Ludlows do? Can Fina change her dance step, does she want to? Is she even aware of the steps? Often in whatever system you're part of, you don't realize the role you play."
   In her new role as bestselling author, you might now see Thoft and her husband—a software developer for Xbox — if you're a tourist in their current hometown of Seattle. Transplanted from Massachusetts seven and a half years ago, you'll often find the two of them, late in the afternoon, immersed in the atmosphere of Pike Place Market, strolling along the cruise ship dock and through the Olympic Sculpture Park, or visiting the fish guys.
   "We catch up with one another, get our blood pumping, and see the world from a different perspective."
   She's three thousand miles away from home, I reminded her, but still by an ocean.
   "Right! Well take a deep breath—it smells like home, it's that salt air, a teeny bit fishy, it absolutely reminds us of the north shore. I don't think I can be away from the water, because I love it so much."
   I couldn't bear to ask if she'd switched her football allegiance to the Seahawks, but it's clear she's still a Massachusetts fan. Her Fina books are set back in Boston.
   "For two reasons: that's what I know. As wonderful as Seattle is, I don't feel I know the city in a way I could put on the page. In Boston, I feel the DNA of the city is part of my DNA, too. A lot of my early driving I learned in Boston, there are things like that—you can't substitute that experience."
   The second reason she revealed with her voice getting softer and a bit wistful.
   "I was living here (in Seattle), and didn't know anyone, and the book let me be in Boston in my head. It let me be home, even though I wasn't home. There was something really cool about that—to be able to spend the day in familiar locations if only in my head."
   Book four of Fina's investigations—underway, but unnamed and under wraps—will also take place in Boston. Thoft is writing it from her study over looking Puget Sound, the snow-capped Olympic Mountains in the distance. She's making more

friends in her new hometown now, of course, and—every author's desire—sometimes a new acquaintance has already heard of her.
   "One day I was chatting with my Zumba teacher,"she told me, "about her book group picks and my work. A classmate, with whom
I was on a friendly, first-name basis, suddenly interrupted and said, "You're that Ingrid? You're Ingrid Thoft?" She had no idea that her sweaty, frizzy-haired classmate was the author of the book she loved! It was thrilling to meet someone who'd picked the
Thoft's office in her Seattle home where her "plot stickers" (left) help her keep track of the action.

book up out of sheer curiosity and couldn't put it down. I think we were both equally delighted to make the connection."
   Just like that no-turning-back moment on the manta scuba dive, Ingrid Thoft has taken a giant stride into the world of crime fiction. Her Fina Ludlow—and her family—are becoming fan favorites in the world of mystery. And readers are eager to see how Ingrid Thoft's exploration of big themes like loyalty, identity, and brutality will emerge to entertain them in her upcoming thrillers.
   "I love the intersection between the universal and the personal, "she says. "I think it's the sweet spot where all of kinds of interesting questions arise."

Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-air investigative reporter for Boston's NBC affiliate. Her thriller Truth Be Told won this year's Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel, and Writes of Passage, which she edited, won this year's Agatha for Nonfiction. Her eighth novel What You See is coming from Forge Books in October 2015.

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