Saturday, 8 September 2012

Thomas Perry: Poison Flower

While I wasn't looking, Thomas Perry has been beavering away since Strip and brought out new sequels to his Jane Whitefield and Butcher's Boy books. Poison Flower is the Whitefield sequel, bringing the total count for the series to seven, and it's a bit of a head scratcher.

Perry didn't start out as a guy writing a series of books about a popular character; his early work was a series of stand alone novels about people on the edges of criminality dealing with one-off problems. I think that Vanishing Act, the first of the Jane Whitefield books, was probably written as yet another stand alone, but turned into a series when his publisher gave him a stern push. "Look," I imagine the conversation going, "people like reading the same book all over again, give them another sequel." And Perry hammered them out on an almost annual basis for a few years, running head long into the law of diminishing returns. One of Perry's stylistic tics is that even his most far-fetched characters (like Chinese Gordon in Metzger's Dog) live in a world where you can't push your luck too far. Sooner or later, the system will catch you and chew you up, and most of his narratives are about a protagonist trying to stay just far enough ahead of the system that it will lose interest and let the protagonist fade back into the scenery. 

Jane Whitefield is all about that; she's dedicated to getting people out of trouble and then out of sight. Perry's problem, which drives the first book and only gets worse with time, is that they more she hides other people, the more visible she gets and the more valuable she becomes as a target to exactly the kind of people she's working against. Vanishing Act was driven by that paradox, as Jane gets conned into hiding a guy who's only using his participation in the hiding process to figure out so that he can find someone else that Jane hid earlier. As a standalone book, that makes for a clever involving narrative; as the books multiply, Perry had to dance harder and harder to get away from the question hanging over the character; how does she go on getting away with this? The more people she helps, the more potential enemies she has, and the more people know how to find her and might give away her own identity.

Because Perry is a consummate craftsman, he managed to hold these problems at bay for five novels before retiring the character, apparently for good. In 2009, he brought her back. The narrative tension in Runner came mostly from Jane's own personal misgivings; she'd promised her (too-good-to-be-true, really) husband that she'd never do this again, and yet, here she was saddling up the old horse, and riding out. I didn't feel that Runner hung together very well, so I approached Poison Flower with some misgivings. As it turns out, it's better than Runner but it still can't get away from the problem which has been hanging over the series ever since it became a series. Jane's an appealing, involving character with that streak of principled amorality that characterises most of Perry's protagonists, and you're rooting for her the whole way through, but the sheer implausibility of her continuing career looms over everything she does. 

Still Poison Flower runs along more quickly and efficiently than Runner did, so that most of the time I was caught up in what comes next rather than grumbling that it didn't make sense. The villain of the piece is not one of Perry's better bad guys. Perry often lets us spend quite a bit of time with the bad guys in his books, seeing things from their point of view, and he's particularly good at villains who are just trying to get the job done. Martel, the bad here, is just a bit too cartoonish and unrealised, and as we get to know him a little better, it's hard to resist the feeling that he's been made irredeemably wicked just so that when Jane inevitably has to off him, we're not going to lose any of our affection for her. Why, the man's a bounder, we're going to have to think. Killing's too good for him. I really don't like it when a writer goes there. A writer needs to have faith in his characters, and in the reader's investment with them. If the preparation has been done right, a protagonist's decision to kill someone is going to make sense in terms of what they've already experienced; there's no need to over-egg the pudding.

That's my main critique; if this book had to exist, that's the thing I'd ask it do differently. Make Martel a more nuanced scoundrel so that Jane's decisions about him carry a real moral weight. If you create a villain who almost anyone would kill on sight, it doesn't mean anything that your protagonist has done it. Jane is a strong recurring character because she has limits, and for it to be interesting to meet her again, we have to have some sense of those limits coming under pressure.

Still, it's a more impressive piece of work than I feared it would be, and in the early stages, when Jane is under a lot of pressure, it's genuinely the book equivalent of watching the TV through your fingers. Perry starts off so strong, it was never going to be easy to finish on the same note; a problem which - as I've tried to make clear - dogs all seven books.

No comments: