The Professional (Thomas Perry)

The long sequence of endlessly re-readable Thomas Perry entertainments began at a 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 possibly owes something to Richard Stark’s Parker, another cold antihero with no sentimental backstory. The excellence of the action may recall the best scenes of Robert B. Parker. As for the overall smooth and intense prose style, Lawrence Block’s Such Men are Dangerous or an early installment of Block’s Matt Scudder series might lurk in the background.

Regardless of influences, Perry’s dry and objective voice is unquestionably the author’s own, clear and true, right from the first book.

In the wake of this hardboiled triumph, Perry tried a trio of 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 ambience reminiscent of Elmore Leonard or Ross Thomas. Island (1987) seems strongly indebted to the more exotically-themed capers of Donald E. Westlake.

With a certain amount of literary wanderlust apparently sated, Perry produced the spectacular and occasionally hilarious bloodbath Sleeping Dogs (1992), a return to the Butcher’s Boy and proper Perry form. After this point the novels can almost be seen as one big feast of professional know-how, a lexicon of comparatively restrained adventures for smart adults looking for literary escapism.

An impassioned speech by Carl Balacontano, where the imprisoned mafioso describes the Butcher’s Boy to FBI agent Elizabeth Waring, helps explains why this antihero is so 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.”

Perry’s most frequent returning character ended up being Jane Whitefield, a Seneca “guide” who helps hide and resettle innocents on the run. Usually hiding is not quite enough, so Jane ends up waging guerrilla warfare against the oppressor. When it comes to fighting and killing, Jane is just as professional as the Butcher’s Boy, but as soon as that skill set isn’t needed, she reverts to someone you wouldn’t notice at the local Whole Foods.

(It’s a bit surprising that there isn’t a Butcher’s Boy or Jane Whitefield movie by now. Perry has said that while most of his books have been optioned, the screenplays never get off the ground because the characters rarely say what they are thinking when working. In the heat of the chase or kill, the dialogue is mostly comprised of many small cons and acts of misdirection.)

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 a delightful conceit: How do you steal billions of dollars away from the Mafia before giving it to charity? In between, Dance for the Dead (1996)Shadow Woman (1997) and The Face-Changers (1998) are all satisfying excursions for the 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 with all inessentials removed, Perry delivered a pair of fabulous standalones in quick succession. 

Death Benefits (2001) takes a familiar trope, an expert teaches a protégé, and combines it with an unlikely setting, an upscale insurance agency.

In Perry, it’s all about the details:

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.

It’s not just these men in Pursuit or the Butcher’s Boy or Jane Whitefield: All of Perry’s heroes are skilled technicians who specialize in getting the job done. At the start of Dead Aim (2002), Mallon seems hopelessly naïve about anything that doesn’t relate to his construction business. Because this is a Perry novel, Mallon will end up kicking the enemy’s ass simply by knowing how fences and garages are built.

There’s something about the cult plot in Dead Aim that recalls Death Benefits. For Nightlife (2006), the showdown of Pursuit is played out by women instead of men.

Dead Aim and Nightlife were worthy entries, 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. There was a similar couple in Shadow Woman, but they even more successful in this fresh incarnation. While these killers are (naturally) good at their job, they are less successful at keeping a relationship together, a kind of romantic dysfunction 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 as if the wife of a lesser Jack Till has to pick up the pieces of a case gone wrong. The more interesting character is the killer, who gets unexpected sympathy from the author (perhaps because he’s the better worker, or perhaps because he is faithful to his partner) and walks free at the end.

Jane Whitefield returns in Runner (2009). In a genre peopled by cartoonishly strong action heroes who can take a bullet, survive a car crash, and still defeat their foe in hand-to-hand combat, Jane’s frank assessment of her own vulnerability (after besting a henchman) is refreshing.

“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.”

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 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 wonderfully underdone.

Arguably Perry’s capstone so far, The Informant (2011) brings back the characters from The Butcher’s Boy and Sleeping Dogs. It took Perry 30 years to complete the Butcher’s Boy trilogy — Lawrence Block admiringly pointed out to me in person that the trilogy was “written in real time” — 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), is eminently readable. It is also the sort of “raise the stakes with gruesome harm done to the hero” story that usually appears when a franchise is treading water.

The Boyfriend (2013) begins with a scathing account of petty competition between gal pals at a few-years-past-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 novel with Jack Till, don’t you?

The entertaining short story “The Book of the Lion” (2014) was written for the Bibliomysteries series of Mysterious Press. A glance at online reviews makes it clear that many Perry fans were confused and frustrated by this sudden reversal of Perry tradition. For once, the professionals end up with the short end of the stick: Indeed, “being the expert” is the only reason the characters get into hot water.

A String of Beads (2015) is one of the best Jane Whitefield books yet. Everything is back in its right place, including Jane vs. the Mafia. Perry loves to describe 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.

When Perry first appeared in 1982, many of the best American crime novelists prized something essentially spare and unsentimental in approach. (I cite Richard Stark/Donald Westlake, Lawrence Block, Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard, and Ross Thomas as possible influences on Perry at the top of this essay.) By 2015, many dominant voices have become far more operatic and emotional. “Everyone matters or no one matters!” is the war cry of Harry Bosch, a cop created by the fine writer Michael Connelly.

Jane Whitefield can’t afford that kind of sentiment, she just doesn’t have the time to be that impractical. In A String of Beads Jane says, “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.”

For the next three books, Perry was intrigued by working couples. In Forty Thieves (2016), married private eyes battle married criminals. A classic Perry situation! The Old Man (2017) begins as a loner in the Butcher Boy or John Till tradition, but while trying to exit the world like Jane Whitefield, he picks up a partner. The emotional meat of the story deals with the consequences of caring for a loved one, a plot point also explored by an intriguing side character, an African-American government operative who might have left the one he really wanted back home. The Bomb Maker (2018) is an unusually evil antagonist, someone who delights in death and destruction on a truly grand scale. Nobody does more with dry technical descriptions than Perry: A long set piece for three-person Bomb Squad and booby-trapped Chevy Malibu is breathtaking. The professional romance in the middle of this terrible situation shares some qualities with those in Forty Thieves and The Old Man.

(Working couples: During this era, Jo Perry began publishing some remarkable thrillers herself. Her first book, Dead is Better, offers a strong and fantastical narrative where a ghost investigates his own death, a dog’s death, and a reprehensible criminal enterprise. An intentionally downbeat mood is enhanced with dozens of literary quotes about death.)

The Burglar (2019) returns Perry to a lone wolf situation, and the result couldn’t be better. Our current specialist is Elle Stowell, a light-fingered thief who inadvertently ends up as an avenging angel. The book has an unusually slow build. I was frankly skeptical of the initial sensational murder and “hip young Los Angeles” characters, but eventually the plot turns out to be one of Perry’s most surprising conceits. As far as I  know, the brilliant central moneymaking scam is unprecedented in the literature.

When looking at The Burglar a second time, I noticed how Stowell uses guile to resolve various outstanding issues during the last 30 pages. There is a very intense scene at the climax, but Stowell remains a silent thief, not a noisy action hero. Once this penny dropped, the book’s title gave me that much more pleasure.

The most recent entry is A Small Town: A Novel of Crime (2020). Crime is always Perry’s topic, but in some ways this is Perry’s biggest canvas yet, with the whole “small town” of the title being the hapless victim of a violent jailbreak led by hardened prisoners trained and armed by nefarious capitalist forces. The book is a straight-up revenge novel, a modern Western where a cop puts down her badge in order to seek frontier justice. Perry has kept up with times. In addition to more traditional equipment such as her Glock 17 pistol, “Fitted with a silencer and drilled to remove the serial number,” Leah Hawkins is professional with a pinhole camera, the Dark Web, and a surveillance drone.

That makes 27 great Thomas Perry novels so far. If you catch me at an airport restaurant on tour looking fixedly at my phone, it is probably because I have re-purchased all my favorite Perry titles for mobile Kindle.

Just for fun, here’s my “best of the best” list, six books that I can’t do without:

Butcher’s Boy trilogy (The Butcher’s Boy, Sleeping Dogs, The Informant)
Death Benefits
The Burglar