Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Strip: Thomas Perry writes an Elmore Leonard book by mistake

Thomas Perry is one of the secret treasures of modern American crime writing, a guy who no-one has heard of and who enjoys periodic revivals at unpredictable intervals. At any given time, most of his stuff is out of print, with one or two books at most showing up when you go looking for them. He's been writing since the early eighties and scattered around my house are copies of all 17 of his books, including the crazily hard to find Island. He got on a good run in the mid nineties with a series of books featuring Jane Whitefield, but the ones I keep coming back to are his first five books, which have a fresh distinctive voice and lightheartedness to them that his later work doesn't always show.

Perry's defining characteristic as a writer is that he's got an eye for the details that other writers don't think of. His characters tend to be smart and unconventional, and they're the kind of people who try to solve problems in unexpected ways. Most of his books have one strong character working on the edge of the law, and another strong character trying to catch that strong character from much further over the line. His first book, the Butcher's Boy, was a clever story of a contract killer being hunted by both the FBI and the mob, and deftly playing one side against the other until the FBI had caught enough of the mob guys after him that he could flee the country. The killer was well drawn as a guy just trying to get by without a name or any sense of right and wrong, and his FBI nemesis was a very nicely written character who was smart and yet alway one step behind. The various mobsters were sketched in with just the right level of detail for their - invariably short - appearances. The charm all the way through came from watching the world from the point of view of a character who saw opportunity or threat in small signals which ordinary people would never notice, and Perry's been using that angle ever since, with greater or lesser success.

The Whitefield books were as close as he's come in his career to mainstream success, and when he'd worked that seam out by 1999, he's faltered a bit. Some of the books's he's written in this decade have been good, some have been flat and not quite up to his best work. Probably the best of them was Pursuit; it's about the only apart from Death Benefits that I've re-read more than once.

Strip is not anything like Perry's best, and it took me a while to work out why. Part of the problem is that the jacket copy completely misleads you about who the real focus of the book is going to be. But that's a detail. The real problem is that Perry hasn't quite made his own mind up who the protagonist is. Now, Elmore Leonard has been doing great work for decades with books where it's not obvious right to the end who the main character is, but it's never been Perry's approach. He sets up one protagonist and between one and three antagonists for the protagonist to worry about and eventually outsmart, and then he creates a conflict between them. And it works fine. Strip has too many protagonists. There's Joe Carver, who the jacket copy and the opening chapter would leave you believing was the protagonist. There Mancu Kapak, who looks like the main antagonist. There's Jeff something, who looks like the wild card. There's Spence, Kapak's efficient deputy. And there's Slosser, the detective trying to catch Kapak. And it's too many people. It's actually too many good characters. He's got about two books worth of them when he only needs one book's worth. And they don't really interact with each other enough, or in the right ways. And they're not really given enough time or room to develop properly.

The thing is, Leonard would have carried this off, sort of. Perry doesn't. In part it's because for all that the characters are recognisably different and have strong identities, they don't really have individual voices. They all talk too much alike, and it jars after a while. With fewer characters and more room to build them up, Perry would have had a more satisfying book. And some characters left over for the next one.

It's a shame really. The book opens with a very clever sequence that it never really lives up to afterward. Joe Carver gets stuck in a building crane and surrounded by armed thugs. He sees them off with the crane. It's a clever and typically Perry sequence, in which the use of the crane is a logical outworking of the more important question of why Carver's sleeping in a crane in the first place. It makes Carver interesting and smart, but after that first chapter, we never really see that aspect of Carver again.

I think I see what he was trying to do here; he wanted to write a book in which a lot of characters would collide with each other precisely because no-one really knew what was going on. The problem was that with so many characters in play, it became hard to care what happened to any of them, and accordingly I lost interest in what was going on. There's an amazing amount of symmetrical wrapping up in the final chapters but the ground work hasn't been laid to make it satisfying. One of the jacket blurbs cries out for a sequel; I'd rather see the book broken up into the two good books which got crushed into each other. Maybe I ought to introduce Perry to Connie Willis.

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