13 June 2010

More from the fox of an author

A couple weeks ago, Bird Loomis recommended Silence by Thomas Perry. Perry was a new author to me, so I went to the Northfield Library and looked for books by him. Silence wasn't on the shelf, but Death Benefits was and I checked it out.

Perry [right] may indeed be a fox compared to other mystery writers. I can't tell yet. I've only read one of his books. I can tell you that I thought Death Benefits was outstanding. It was a delight to read. One sign that Bird is right about Perry's approach to mystery fiction was that this plot didn't follow the conventions of mystery stories. This author does indeed know more than one way to structure a mystery.

He also knows good elements to use. One of the main characters is a private investigator whose skills and connections are nearly magical. Max Stillman lets nothing stand in his way, and he always wins the brawls. He can find out anything through his connections. I began to wonder why this mystery was so difficult for him to sort out because it was hard to see a shortcoming in his panoply of abilities. But without some shortcomings, the book would be pretty short and not very interesting.

When on an assignment for an old-fashioned insurance company, Stillman drafts a young analyst, John Walker, out of the company's cube farm to help him find anomalies in suspect claims. Thus begins a cross-country adventure without any limitation of a budget (thanks to the scale of the fraud). Walker is dragged into late night surveillance, back alley fist fights, attempts to dodge bullets, and unexpected romance. (See what I mean about Perry's awareness of the traditional building blocks of mystery fiction?)

The romance comes for Walker in the form of a seductive computer hacker who works for one of Stillman's contract researchers. If Death Benefits hadn't been published several years before Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I could easily have been convinced that the relationship between Walker and the mysterious "Serena" had been copied from the relationship between Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander in Larsson's books.

If you've read many of my reactions here, you know that I have trouble with contrived situations and things that don't make sense. Well, Perry's story includes some real whoppers, but I didn't notice them until I was done with the book. I credit that to Perry's story telling: it's like being on a fast-moving train that goes through an implausible landscape that doesn't seem implausible until the train stops. (e.g. What's with a New England town of 3,500 people where the police department has 16 patrol cars? Come on, why didn't the magical investigator or his statistical wizard sidekick notice that obvious anomaly? Even the city of 15,000+ I live in doesn't have that many squad cars lined up in the parking lot behind the "Safety Center.") The final scene was rather like the mob scene from a Transylvanian horror movie, but it was only the arrival of the cavalry that made me realize what a ridiculous ride I'd been taken on.

I'm encouraged enough that when I take this book back to the library, I'll look for Silence or another of Perry's books. Have you read Death Benefits or another of Perry's books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.

Thomas Perry's web site

"Putting the "Fun" in Dysfunctional," Patrick A. Smith's review of Death Benefits in January Magazine

Andy Plonka's review at The Mystery Reader

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