The Professional

Thomas Perry’s smooth, unpretentious and action-packed page-turners just keep coming. This author is a worker whose essential topic is also work. All of his characters are just as professional as Perry himself, skilled technicians who specialize in getting the job done.

In an era where the outsized comic book ethos of superheroes, magic, and vengeance seemingly has sway over the entire culture, it is a relief to enjoy one of Perry’s comparatively restrained adventures for smart adults. For his latest, A String of Beads, Perry returns to Jane Whitefield, the Seneca “guide” who helps and hides innocents on the run. Usually hiding is not quite enough, so Jane ends up waging guerrilla warfare against the oppressor.

During this installment of the Jane saga, Jane first needs to find an old friend and fellow Seneca blamed for a murder he didn’t commit. As always, Jane is neither glamorous nor alienated. When working, she navigates middle- and upper-middle-class society as quietly as possible, stealthily avoiding the notice of noncombatants who might put the hounds on her trail. In A String of Beads, Jane tracks her old friend through wilderness, beats up bad guys, hides a family, nurses a wounded cop, and plays ends against the middle, but as soon as her professional skills aren’t needed, she reverts to someone you wouldn’t notice at the local Whole Foods.

Much modern crime fiction tries to manipulate a reader into caring about the injustices suffered by every victim everywhere. (Michael Connelly’s cop Harry Bosch has the slogan, “Everyone matters or no one matters.”) Jane can’t afford to be this sentimental. As she says in A String of Beads, “What I do is help people stay alive. I don’t help them get revenge, or bring them justice, or something. I teach them to run and hide.”

Jane speaks clearly enough to her husband or the people she helps, but in general most of her talk is a con. This is true of almost all Perry leads, who specialize in shaping the reality around them though misdirection. Perry has said that while most of his books have been optioned, the screenplays never get off the ground because the characters never say what they are thinking when working. In the heat of the chase or kill, they only tell lies. It’s hard to fashion a script when the dialogue is comprised of mostly lies.

Movies made from favorite books rarely pass muster, but in Perry’s case they should really figure it out because he could use a little more juice. I take the measure of big crime fiction successes by browsing the bookstores in airports. Those that have made the cut in recent years include Connelly, John Sanford, Harlan Coben, James Patterson, Tami Hoag, and others in the modern blockbuster idiom. Thomas Perry is rarely there, which is really too bad. Not only is he just as good or better than anybody else, he’s ideal airplane reading.

(While working on this review I flew to Japan and back from New York. It went much quicker with a stack of Thomas Perry by my side.)

If you’ve never read Perry, there’s no reason not to start with A String of Beads. As with all of his work, as soon as I picked it up, I did nothing else until I got to the last page. As a lifelong fan, however, I find it impossible to separate this book from the rest of his work. It’s all one big text that I keep in steady rotation.

Perry began at an extraordinarily high level with The Butcher’s Boy (1982), a slow dance performed by an exceptional hitman, the Mafia who hires and betrays him, and the FBI agent tasked with figuring out what is going on. The title character probably owes something to Richard Stark’s Parker, both being cold antiheroes with no sentimental backstory. The excellence of the action scenes may recall the best bits of Robert B. Parker. As for the overall smooth and intense prose style, perhaps Lawrence Block’s Such Men are Dangerous or an early Scudder installment lurks in the background. In the end, though, this dry and objective voice is unquestionably Perry’s own, clear and true right from the first book.

In the wake of this triumph, Perry tried to avoid being typecast with three diverse and lighter thrillers. The rather loony tunes Metzger’s Dog (1983) was an influence on Carl Hiassen, who wrote the introduction to the reprint. Big Fish (1985) has a cocky Elmore Leonard-ish or Ross Thomas-ish ambience. Island (1987) seems strongly indebted to the more exotically-themed capers of Donald E. Westlake.

After this wanderlust came the spectacular and occasionally hilarious bloodbath Sleeping Dogs (1992), a return to the Butcher’s Boy and proper Perry form. The speech where imprisoned mafioso Carl Balacontano describes the Butcher’s Boy to FBI agent Elizabeth Warren explains why this leading man is strangely charismatic:

Balacontano waved his hand in frustration. “You’ve got to understand what we’re talking about here. I don’t know how to make you see it. There’s a lot of talk about hit men and all that, so it sounds like going to an exterminator or something. What people don’t think about is that getting somebody killed isn’t all that hard. I saw a couple of days ago in the paper that some woman in Phoenix hired two teenagers to strangle her husband for a hundred bucks apiece. With competition like that, how does anybody make a living? I’ll tell you how. There are only maybe five or six genuine specialists that I know about, so there can’t be more than two dozen, tops. And they’re an odd bunch. You hear about movie stars and famous heart surgeons and these morons with the guitars, and somebody says they’re prima donnas. They don’t know what the hell a prima donna is.

These specialists I’m talking about are very hard to deal with. A movie star does it for the money, sure, but he likes the applause too — the glamour, the admiration. Not these people. They honestly and sincerely don’t give a shit what you think, whether you like them or hate them; if people flock around them or avoid them, it’s all the same. A friend of mine once told me it was because their egos were so big they didn’t think anybody else was even real. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s not out of the question. If you hear about some piece of ass who decides she’s a great actress and throws tantrums at the director, people say she’s impossible. You want to see impossible? Try sitting across a table from a guy who wouldn’t notice it if he had to tear your heart out of your chest on the way out, because he’s done it a hundred times before and he’s so good at it he can do it without having to wash his hands.

Wanting to stretch himself by writing a female lead, Perry then invented Jane Whitefield. Of the initial set of five Whitefield books, I particularly admire the first, Vanishing Act (1995), which takes the “this time it’s personal” cliché to a logical extreme, and the last, Blood Money (1999), which offers one of Perry’s most delightful conceits: how do you steal billions of dollars away from the Mafia and give it to charity? In between, Dance for the Dead (1996), Shadow Woman (1997) and The Face-Changers (1998) are all satisfying catnip for a dedicated thriller reader, although Perry himself admitted that he got a little tired working with one character five books in a row.

Done with Jane for the moment and secure in a powerful voice, Perry then created a pair of especially fabulous stand-alones in quick succession. Death Benefits (2001) takes a familiar trope, an expert teaches a protégé, and combines it with an unlikely setting, an insurance agency. As always in Perry, it’s all about the details. I have reread this book many times to savor scenes like these:

Stillman sat down and squinted up at the waiter for a few seconds as though the two of them were in a poker game and the waiter had just raised. The waiter held a tiny pad in the palm of his hand with a pen poised over it. Stillman said, “Can your bartender make a real mai tai?”

“Old-fashioned kind?” asked the waiter, now assessing Stillman with veiled interest.

“That’s right,” said Stillman. “The old-fashioned kind.”

“Two mai tai old-fashioned kind,” the waiter announced, and put a strike mark on his pad that could not have been a Chinese character, then spun on his heel and went off. It seemed to Walker that the pad must be for appraising the customers, and Stillman had scored high.

“What’s changed about mai tais?”

Stillman shrugged. “Beats me. It’s pretty clear they’ve gone to hell like everything else.”

The waiter returned with two large glasses filled with liquid the color of liver. Stillman sipped his, then said, “Perfect.”

Walker tasted his, and guessed that “old-fashioned kind” must mean that the quantity of rum was up to the standard in force when driving drunk was still legal in Los Angeles.

Almost simultaneously with Death Benefits, Perry published Pursuit (2001), a hard-headed story about two extremely violent and extremely intelligent men stalking each other to the death in a testosterone-fueled fantasia of traps and technology. If you have a taste for this kind of thing and haven’t read Pursuit, stop looking at this review and go find a copy.

Again, Perry’s characters are workers. Even if it seems like the hero is hopelessly naïve, like Mallory at the start of Dead Aim (2002), by the book’s conclusion he will be kicking the enemy’s ass simply by knowing how fences and garages are built.

There’s something about the group-think scenario in Dead Aim that recalls Death Benefits.  For Nightlife (2006), it as if the showdown of Pursuit is played out by women instead of men.

Perry wasn’t stagnating (Dead Aim and Nightlife are excellent books overall), but Silence (2007) kicks it back up a notch. Private investigator Jack Till is tough but also has some of the gentleness of Jane Whitefield. The antagonists are a truly unusual creation, a romantic duo of cold killers of the sort that first appeared in Shadow Woman but are even more successful in this incarnation. The killers are good at their job (of course) but less successful at keeping a relationship together; their dysfunction is interestingly mirrored by Till’s inability to find peace with a new girlfriend.

Obviously intrigued by the theme of work vs. romance, Perry kept going in Fidelity (2008), which begins almost as if the wife of a lesser Jack Till has to pick up the pieces of a case gone terribly wrong. By the book’s end she has become a bit like Till herself. However, the more interesting character is the killer, who — perhaps because he’s the better worker — gets more sympathy from the author and even walks free at the end.

Jane Whitefield returns in Runner (2009), a solid and passionate entry. The moment when Jane explains how she managed to defeat a hired thug is telling:

“He thought I couldn’t hurt him, so he didn’t pay enough attention to me, or protect himself. There was a huge difference between us. No matter how much work I do, or how much I learn, I’m never going to be as strong as even the average out-of-shape man. He has at least seventy or eighty pounds on me, a lot of it muscle. I have to attack very fast, fight very dirty, and get back where he can’t reach me. I can’t stand around hitting him and letting him hit me. If he lands one good punch he’ll break bones.”

“But you beat him.”

“No, I tricked him. That man saw the two of us, and what he was seeing was like a pair of little pussycats. You can go up to a hundred cats, one after another, and they’re all perfectly docile. Then you meet that one that looks the same, but suddenly it has its claws digging into your arm to hold on while it sinks its teeth all the way into your hand. That’s me. I’m the one that bites.”

In a genre peopled by cartoonishly strong action heroes who can take a bullet, survive a car crash, and still defeat their foe in single combat, Jane’s frank assessment of her own vulnerability is refreshing. In addition, Jane is describing not just her fighting style, but her relationship to the whole world when working.

Strip (2010) hosts a collection of colorful and amusing brigands reminiscent of the three early caper novels between The Butcher’s Boy and Sleeping Dogs. However, Perry’s dry and objective voice is now utterly established: if Big Fish still sounded like Elmore Leonard at times, Strip recalls Leonard only in plot details. The first chapter, where a ne’er-do-well uses a huge construction excavator to fight off thugs who have come to collect, is a masterpiece of underdone humor. Still, it’s good that for the next book Perry went back to what he does best.

Arguably Perry’s capstone to date, The Informant (2011), brings back the party from The Butcher’s Boy and Sleeping Dogs to interact and collude one last time. It took Perry 30 years to write the Butcher’s Boy trilogy, but the through line is strong. It’s a major contribution to the genre, and if Perry had written nothing else, he would still have a place at the top table.

The next Jane installment, Poison Flower (2012), has a lot of good stuff in it but nonetheless reads like one of those “raise the stakes” stories that happen when the writer doesn’t know how to keep the franchise going.

The opening chapter of The Boyfriend (2013) is a scathing account of petty competition between gal pals at a post-college lunch. I wouldn’t dare make these sweeping assertions about female behavior myself, but when I showed it to my wife, she shrugged and said, “It’s true.” It’s great to have Jack Till back, although the bad guy is more predictable and all those sex scenes with paid escorts and other young women are a bit over-the-top. Mr. Perry, I think we need at least one more Jack Till story, don’t you?

This takes us up to the current offering, A String of Beads, which is one of the best Jane books so far. Everything is back in its right place, including Jane vs. the Mafia. To close out this overview, here’s the quintessential worker, Thomas Perry, imagining how old-school Italian criminals do their jobs:

In the garden behind the big brick house on Middlesex in Buffalo, Lorenzo Malconi closed his eyes again. He never really slept in the afternoon, but pretending to nap made people underestimate him and gave him a chance to think. Teddy Mangeoli was in a position that wasn’t warranted by his talents or his character. The next strong wind would blow him away like a brown leaf off a tree. But Lorenzo Malconi had never been an impatient man, and at this stage of his life he valued cunning above audacity. He would not be the one to send Teddy Mangeoli to the undertakers. Instead, he might be the one who waited until somebody else did, and then administer justice on the culprit and exert his moral authority over both families. That would depend on who moved first.