Monday, 2 September 2013

Thomas Perry: The Boyfriend

I commented a while back that with Strip, Thomas Perry had written an Elmore Leonard book. Strangely, with The Boyfriend, he got me thinking that way again. The Elmore Leonard thing about Strip was the big cast of people tripping over each other; the Leonard thing in The Boyfriend is the writing style, pared down to the very basics without a wasted word.

Perry went dark for a while there and suddenly there's a new book every time I turn around; this time last year saw sequels to The Butcher's Boy and the Jane Whitefield books, and now there's an unexpected sequel to 2007's Silence, which was OK but not amazing. You don't need to have read Silence to get the full value out of The Boyfriend, and if you read Silence you're not really wondering what's going to happen next to any of the characters; they're both solid little books which stand up on their own. I'm not complaining that Perry wrote another book about Jack Till; I never complain that Perry's written another book. I'm just not quite sure why he did it that way.

I saw it in one of those awkward sized paperbacks, but when I went looking to see if it had come out in more convenient e-book, I saw that it had been out since May as an e-book and it was now crazily cheap. So I bought it that way and read it between Saturday afternoon and breakfast on Monday morning. Partly because e-books are great for a snatched five minute dip into a book when you're stuck some place with just your phone. And somehow the writing lent itself to that; the situations were crisp enough that you could come back to them wondering what was going to happen next, and just dive back in.

As with most of his recent work, it's really a two hander; a good guy just on the edge of the law is hunting down a bad guy way out on the ragged edge of evil. Perry does loners well; one of the things which he does better than most is to sketch loners who actually work. Jack Till isn't some loose cannon who gets results, dammit. He's a thoughtful reasonable man who plays well with others, but chooses to work alone most of the time. So as he bounces around the US trying to find the Boyfriend, he runs into the rest of the US law enforcement tribe, and his interactions with them feel right; he's an outsider who used to be an insider and he works with them, not against them. It feels so much more plausible than all the wild and crazy private eyes of other genre fiction, even though it leaves the text desperately short of wisecracks.

The plot is simple, though it takes a little time to settle into its groove. Someone is killing a succession of escorts in one city after another; they all look very much alike, and it's not clear why it's happening. Till gets hired by the family of the most recent victim and he keeps picking away at the puzzle when the police write it off as an occupational hazard of the sex trade. The reader gets to see what's building a little earlier than Till does, which notches the tension up as the story unfolds; Till doesn't know just what he's dealing with, but we do. 

Inevitably, a thing like this is going to fizzle out a little as the options for everyone start to narrow; after all, the good guy usually wins in these things and it can only really go one way (which is why re-using Till is perhaps a mistake; once you're a series character, you've got an immortality chit; without a recurring character the outcome would be a little less of a foregone conclusion). So the strength is in the middle, as Till struggles to get ahead of the Boyfriend and stop him from striking again. The middle is a genuine nail biter; sure, Till has his immortality chit and the villain's hardly going to get schwacked in the middle of the book, but Perry has got you invested in the other characters and you're rooting for them somehow to get clear of the unfolding mess.

Even though this is one of Perry's flatter recent books, he's still kept that Austen-like knack of concentrating on some minor facet of day to day life and letting the reader see how, for an observant person, it could easily be the difference between life and death. That's Perry's true distinguishing feature as a writer; he fastens on the telling detail. He doesn't have Leonard's uncanny knack for dialogue, but in his own way, he's true to that Leonard genius for giving you all the story with no wasted language. And in a month which has seen us lose Leonard once and for all, it's nice to see that at 66, Perry is still working hard, and we can hope for another surprise next year.

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