Saturday, 8 September 2012

Thomas Perry: The Informant

With the exception of the strong run of good fortune in the late 90s from the Jane Whitefield books, Thomas Perry has never really had the success he deserves. His first published book is one of his best; The Butcher's Boy is clever and contains all the tricks which will continue to work through his whole writing career. The viewpoint is split between the eponymous assassin and the Justice Department employee who gradually figures out that he has to be the explanation for all the weird things she's being asked to analyse. The book ends without them ever meeting, and is that rare thing, a book which resolves everything without resolving the conflict between the main characters.

Perry came back to the Butcher's Boy ten years later with Sleeping Dogs. In the first book, the Butcher's Boy triggered off a mob war so that he could get away cleanly from the aftermath of a contract killing; in the second, the grievances from that war finally caught up with him in his genteel retirement, and he was forced to repeat his tactics. It's a clever twist on the first book, with the analyst and the assassin both much more aware of each other's existence, and yet it still closes out with the analyst still not realising who the assassin in or how close he's been to killing her. Both characters have changed and developed in the ten years that have gone by, and it's a very satisfying sequel, even if our assassin's fiancĂ©e may be one of the earliest manifestations of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (in fairness, she's the logical development of a a kind of female character that Perry was fond of at the time, probably because of a fondness for Nora Charles…) 

I wasn't terribly surprised to see that Perry had written another Whitefield book, but a new one about the Butcher's Boy was not something I'd ever expected, or even dared to hope for. (I'm still sort of hoping for a return of Chinese Gordon from Metzger's Dog, but I've stopped holding my breath).

The Informant is quite a good book, and does justice to the work that's gone before. There's an unavoidable chronological cheat in it, in that Perry places the third book ten years after the second while leaving it pretty much in the world of 2012 rather than 2002, where it should be. It's hard to blame him; what's plausible as character development and vitality for the characters after twenty years would be ridiculous after thirty. 

No matter what else Perry does in a book, there's always some fun to be had from his brisk little descriptions of how his anti-heroes and heroes overcome the obstacles between them and their short term objectives. The Butcher's Boy kills people, and The Informant is dotted, just like its predecessors, with efficient multiple murders, both carefully planned and extempore. What makes The Informant a good Perry book (rather than a merely OK one) is how well the main characters find their way to their long term objectives. For the first time in their long slow relationship, the main characters meet as equals, each knowing who the other is, and for the first time, the analyst is in real peril. Perry paces this very well, and it's a testament to the way that he's built Elizabeth Waring, the analyst, over time, that the prospect of her being fired feels as real and troubling as it ought to. Detective fiction is full of maverick cops forever being emptily threatened with ruin by their supervisors; from the outset, the professional risks Waring takes ring true rather than sounding Hollywood. 

No book is ever perfect, and I feel like The Informant wraps things up a little too quickly - not too cleverly, but just too quickly. Matters resolve in a way which makes sense and is entirely satisfactory and logical, but it feels rushed to see clever stratagems explained after the fact in a few lines of dialogue. All the more so when we're reading Perry, the master of explaining a stratagem over several pages of action, showing us just enough at each step that we can appreciate the cleverness of the next one. But there you are; I'd rather be complaining that something is over too soon than bemoaning the fact that it overstayed its welcome. 

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