Have you read Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield novels? They are some of my favorite diversions, taut thrillers with an interesting concept. Jane Whitefield is a Seneca Indian who makes people disappear. They might be abused wives or embezzlers on the run, inadvertent witnesses to dreadful crimes — what they have in common is that somebody wants to hurt them and they have nowhere to go. Jane steps in and spirits them out of their lives, into new existences. Part of the charm of these novels is the suspense, of course, though they are always fundamentally chases. And part of the fun is procedural; I enjoy the how-to of the disappearance. Jane herself is a kind of superwoman, beautiful and brilliant and a fine athlete, but human. I was rather touched when Perry seemed to be retiring Jane from her grueling avocation, by having her marry a handsome doctor.
Well, Jane’s back, but don’t get too excited. Poison Flower is really just a shadow of Jane’s earlier outings. It unites a number of her previous adversaries but only in the sketchiest fashion. If you haven’t read all of the earlier novels recently, you won’t remember who these bad guys are or why they hate Jane, and you certainly won’t perceive our heroine as much beyond a gal with a strong sense of focus and a high pain threshold. She does a lot of cross-country driving, sets up an ambush, shoots some bad guys, ignores a bullet wound, drives some more. Or, wait — maybe this is the screenplay, mistakenly packaged as a book?
Michael Connelly sells a lot of books, and since I’m always on the lookout for escape reading, I bought a used copy of The Reversal in an airport last week. I will say that it got me through the 5 hours from Burbank to New York. But I have to add that the ladies chatting rather loudly in front of me broke through the storytelling more than once, which meant that the book was not completely doing its job.
The Reversal is a recent entry in a series of books by Connelly that follow a network of characters solving crimes in Los Angeles. Detective Harry Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller are working together here with what is evidently a familiar cast of ex-wives and former colleagues. There’s a lot of criminal court procedure that reminded me of jury duty only, of course, much more colorful. The criminal in this case is Jason Jessup, who has spent 24 years in jail for murdering a little girl. The case has been reopened and Mickey — normally a defense lawyer — is named prosecutor. It’s perfectly competent but lacked the quirkiness of Thomas Perry’s books, which cover much the same ground. So I guess Perry remains my airborne choice.
Yes, he’s done it again, in time for summer vacation. With Strip, Thomas Perry has brought us another hypercompetent and actually thrilling thriller. It may be a slight flaw that the most exciting scene takes place first, as Joe Carver (not his real name) lurks in a construction crane 250 feet above earth, watching five men in two black Hummers search the building site for him. Curiously the height factor amplifies the suspense of the scene — maybe by adding an extra level of menace to Carver’s situation?
Afraid of heights?
Here’s what Perry’s best at, besides plotting. (Which I don’t deny he does really well.) He puts the reader in the consciousness of sundry slightly scuzzy characters and makes them sympathetic. For instance, Manco Kapak, proprietor of several LA strip clubs, has his problems and his sadnesses like any other 64-year-old businessman. “Joe Carver” is a decent guy caught up in a case of mistaken identity and he just has to defend himself, using a fairly unusual set of skills involving firearms and hand-to-hand combat. And the police chief has his own problems which Perry can’t really expect us to take seriously. There’s maybe a faint ironic sheen on some of this, but it’s all pretty good-natured. Perry knows he’s entertaining us so he doesn’t waste much time on character development or scene-setting, preferring to concentrate on the double-cross. No honor among thieves, you know.
I wonder why Perry isn’t as successful as Lee Child. This was a more satisfying read than 61 Hours. I suspect it’s that Perry hasn’t stuck to one iconic character. It makes his books slightly less predictable. You would think that was a virtue, but with escape literature, maybe the preferred range of difference from one iteration to another is pretty narrow.
I am slightly concerned that by blogging about these Thomas Perry novels, I will strip them their utility. They are great diversions, but what has worked in the past is that I read them fast and forget them. Writing requires a somewhat more active engagement with what you read, and helps you remember it. Which is normally fine, but not if you want to repeat the experience.
On the other hand, maybe it will be useful for me to match up the plots (somewhat interchangeable) with the titles (completely interchangeable). Pursuit is about a dead-eyed heartless killer loose in the heartland, and the dead-eyed former cop who is set on his trail. Perry‘s good enough to launch a comparison between the two men and their animal equivalents. He’s also good enough not to work that theme too hard. We are not, of course, talking about well-rounded characters here: these are more or less giant paper dolls with targets painted on their chests, but the tale of their stalking each other is certainly absorbing.
The other good thing about Perry is that you can still respect yourself when you’ve finished his books. There’s often a faint twinkle of redemption in even the most alarming characters — that, or they were scarred by a grim childhood. Tough men are allowed to show a softer side for three or four pages. The horror is not relentless, and not lingered over. And Perry is literate, so there are no infelicities of diction. He writes self-effacing, serviceable prose, expertly paced. Sometimes that’s all a reader needs.
I’m pretty sure this is the first of Perry’s Jane Whitefield series. The concept is brilliant: Jane is a Seneca, from upstate New York, who helps people disappear. The later books are somewhat more functional, more pure thriller, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Perry’s a reliable source of pleasure and diversion. But I got an extra charge out of Vanishing Act this time around. It seemed to have an extra, unnecessary layer of circumstantial detail that Perry was almost compelled to include. Some of it was back story on Jane’s own family (full-blood Seneca father, anglo mother) and on the folkways of Indians in upstate New York. This must all have taken a lot of research on Perry’s part and I had the sense that he was sharing something he found very compelling: a way of life and a tight-knit community that stand in contrast to Jane Whitefield’s peripatetic metier, and in contrast to the thinly-rooted life of mainstream America. In a way Vanishing Act shares a lot with Craig Johnson’s wonderful The Cold Dish, which features a startling (and entirely successful) dream sequence involving a mystical Indian intervention in the anglo world.
Fundamentally, all of these Jane Whitefield books combine two enormously appealing plot devices: the character transformation (hello, Cinderella!) and the chase scene. Vanishing Act cranks that up further in that Jane’s “rabbit” — the guy she is steering to safety, away from the hunting dogs — turns out to be a traitor in his own right. So we see Jane both as vulnerable and capable. This is one of Perry’s great feats in this series; he doesn’t flinch away from the damage that Jane’s avocation does to her. Hence, possibly, the fact that there are only five of these books.
It’s also very clever that the final confrontation takes place in the woods. At first, it seems that the villain is dictating the terms of the duel, as he lures Jane deep into the trackless terrain of the Adirondacks. But she finally taps into her heritage and reclaims some Indian skills. Is it corny that she ends up painting her face and sticking feathers in her hair? Did Perry envision this as a scene in a movie? Doesn’t matter. I’m with her all the way.
Sleeping Dogs is the sequel to Thomas Perry’s The Butcher’s Boy, and unlike many sequels, it is just as strong as the original story. The Butcher’s Boy, the nameless professional assassin, has spent ten years lying low in England with an aristocratic girlfriend. He is spotted, though, at the race track, by a low-level mafioso who tries to kill him, and the rest of the novel is what you’d expect: an extended chase scene with interludes for mayhem.
We know Perry is incredibly adept at the important elements of thriller-writing: suspense, pacing, and know-how. What I admired even more in this book was the way he manages to make this stone-cold killer somewhat sympathetic, so that the reader is in the unusual position of rooting both for the good guys and the bad guys. The forces of order are represented by Elizabeth Waring, the sharp Justice Department agent from The Butcher’s Boy. She is now a single mother, in addition to being smarter than her bosses, so of course we like her. But the killer is a much tougher sell. Perry even makes it plain that the man has no stable identity. He’d just as soon be William Wolf as Charles Ackerman. It makes absolutely no difference to him. Chilling. But Perry also gives us more anecdotes about the man’s apprenticeship as a child murderer, so he gets some points for sympathy. And the true villains are the venal, violent members of the Mafia, who don’t share an appealing feature among them. The murderer wipes out one after another, and you don’t regret it. He begins to feel more like an aggrieved consumer attempting to get satisfaction from customer service than a multiple murderer. Toward the end Perry allows him to show some concern for a sympathetic character we’re already invested in and we’re really glad to see him get away with…. Yup.
Here’s a question: if I can’t follow the plot of a novel, why do I still enjoy reading it? Legions of readers of Dashiell Hammett and John LeCarré have wondered the same thing. I’ve been working recently on the theory that curiosity may be the most powerful motivation to keep reading. Yet I couldn’t say that was strictly what kept me going with The Butcher’s Boy. There’s a lot about warring crime families, vengeance and general mayhem, all very complex. The characters were way ahead of me and I’m still a little bit baffled.
So here are a few things. The how-to business is always fascinating, and Perry excels at this. Where do you hide a gun in a hotel room? What’s the best way to move $4 million in cash? One long scene involves a character being paid for a hit by playing blackjack at successive casinos in Las Vegas. Could it really work this way? Who knows.
Perry also makes one of the protagonists a really sharp female Justice Department agent, and it’s enjoyable to see her running circles around her peers. (A pleasure, by the way, that Perry seems to toss in as a little bonus. It has nothing to do with the plot.) Then there’s the highly competent nameless “butcher’s boy” of the title, a hired killer. Just doing his job. There’s always a lot of pleasure in watching a craftsman ply his trade.
And finally, Perry is a stylish and able writer. Minor characters (the physically enormous Vegas fixer Little Norman, for instance) are floridly memorable, action and pacing click along and even in a routine bit of exposition, you get a descriptive sentence like this: “Inside [the casino] the light, the air, the colors, the sounds were all different and belonged to the spcial exigencies of this place, where the world consisted of a low-frequency hum of unflagging agitation, like an itch or a hope.”
Fortunately Perry is prolific.
It’s books like this that I really need to blog about, just so that I can remember I read them. I love Thomas Perry, I think he’s brilliant at what he does and Dance for the Dead is one of his better books so it’s really good.
You don’t read books like this in order to remember them. You read them for escape and entertainment. Over the years I’ve put a lot of time and effort into facilitating this kind of escapism in my life. The bookshelves of one entire wall in our apartment are lined with paperback mysteries and thrillers and cozy British family dramas (Rosamund Pilcher, Joanna Trollope) just so that I can take periodic breaks from my own not-terribly-taxing reality. But I need to be able to match the escape to the mood. And believe it or not, Perry often requires a modicum more energy or resilience than some other thriller-writers. His Jane Whitefield novels, of which Dance for the Dead is the second, concern a Seneca woman who spirits people out of the world and escorts them into an invisible hidden existence somewhere else in America. This particular novel includes an arch-villain who hides within a huge security company, running a separate kind of bounty-hunting operation. All of Perry’s books feature chases, nifty gadgets, creepy villains and weird walk-on characters. But Perry makes Jane almost human, so she gets depressed sometimes about what she does. Sometimes she fails, and that’s depressing, too. Perry had the sense to retire Jane after a handful of books, perhaps because he took pity on her. (Or maybe because the plot of each book must by definition be an extended chase, and that could get boring). Anyway he’s a terrific resource for a fast reader who sometimes needs pure distraction. My only reservation is that they are somewhat interchangeable.
Yup: here’s the paradox. If they were more distinctive, they would be more memorable. Then I wouldn’t be able to read them over and over again. Then they would actually be less useful to me, providing only 2 hours of harmless reverie rather than 4 or 6 (or, in the case of certain Dick Francis novels, 10 or 12).
So maybe it’s not a formula. Maybe it’s a recipe, which implies, to me at least (cook rather than chemist), more latitude. Ingredients include likable melancholy hero, redoubtable Nazi villain(s), a modest dose of spycraft, several discreet but circumstantial sex scenes, lousy Central European weather, and a scene at the Brasserie Heininger. It’s time to drop the last — kind of like the sun-dried tomatoes of spy fiction, a good idea for a while but we’ve seen enough. Now Furst has to produce so much exposition to get his characters in position at the Brasserie (to see the bullet-hole in the mirror from a gun battle many books back) that it’s tiresome.
He writes well, and atmosphere’s always been the strong suit. I can never tell from the title or the cover if I’ve read any given volume; covers tend to feature fog and titles to include dark or shadows. Easy enough to confuse. In this go-round the hero, Jean-Francois Mercier, is an aristocratic WWI veteran whose old leg wound requires him to carry an ebony stick with which in one scene he cracks a thug across the face. Nice: the accessory that provides both vulnerability and defense. Mercier is stationed in Warsaw and the McGuffin, if I followed the plot, is access to the German invasion plans for France. (We’re in 1937-8.) The part I remember best, though, is the section set in his ancestral house in rural France, all cool damp winter mist and well-trained hunting dogs.
Which is not really as it should be. Pleasant as it was to spend mental time in Furstworld, I was primed for a little more suspense and action. The ebony stick got deployed only in a subplot involving some resentful Nazi underlings — a subplot that didn’t seem ever to resolve. The height of tension in the main spying plot point of the novel was a series of tense border crossings. OK, the narrator gets anxious when the mean kontrol guy with the German shepherd thumbs his counterfeit documents and examines the valise with the false bottom, but it’s not exactly nail-biting, is it?
Furst also signals a sequel involving Mercier and his Polish girlfriend, much the way Thomas Perry signals a sequel in Runner. Is this now required of thrillers?
Man, that was fun. I love Thomas Perry. I have this theory that the really good thriller or mystery writers are the really smart ones: sometimes you get a little growl, like the engine of a Lamborghini in a traffic jam. It’s not a question of frustration, but more a sense of power reined in, and it makes books by these people incredibly effective. Think of the brilliant Dorothy Sayers, whose other job besides creating Lord Peter Wimsey was translating Dante. Or, for heaven’s sake, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
OK, Perry isn’t Tolkien. But he’s very sharp and all of his thrillers show it. (Metzger’s Dog perhaps the most insolently.) The Jane Whitefield novels are probably his most enjoyable for me. Jane is a Seneca who makes people disappear from terrible lives or risks. So you get all the fun of introduction to an alternate universe besides ours, and you get the technical fun of how it all works. Beyond that, Perry has also explored the complications, ethical and emotional, of Jane’s way of life. The books are always, reliably, excellent plot-driven narratives. At their best, they even give you something to think about.
I’m not sure Runner is one of the best, but I was reading in the car so I might have been distracted. It seemed as if Perry was skimping on some opportunities for character development, since Jane has now been married for five years and her husband, naturally enough, hates it when she takes people on the run. She stopped for a while when she married and started up again for this book. It involves, as they all do, a vulnerable person on the run from real baddies. Christine, the runner, is less interesting than some have been, and the bad guy doesn’t quite ring true. Perry’s psychology is usually keener than this and the book ends with a bloodbath. I don’t know how Jane’s going to feel about that in the long run, but Perry makes it clear on the last page that she’ll be back.