Thursday, 22 October 2015

Thomas Perry; A String of Beads

The Return of Jane Whitefield Rides Again, Electric Boogaloo edition. I’ve complained in a prior post about Thomas Perry pushing his luck on the eternal saga of Jane Whitefield, and yet, here we are again, almost as if the literary world didn’t quail before my merest eyebrow twitch. It’s been twenty years since we first met Jane as a woman somewhere in her early thirties, and time has more or less stood still since Perry first put down his pen in 1999 with the fifth book. Either Jane can be the same age she was in the late nineties and the last decade never happened (and a world without smart phones would be a more comfortable world for mystery writers of all kinds) or she can live in the present and be middle aged just like everyone else who was in their early thirties in 1995. 

It’s not middle aged jealousy for the cool lives of fictional characters driving this grumble, or at least it’s not just that. It’s that Perry has always been a writer whose feet are solidly on the ground. His characters live on detail and consistency and the sense that the smallest action can have a consequence or be an opportunity for someone else to make their move. Have someone float through that real world like an immortal breaks a silent deal between writer and reader that at no point are we going to be asked to believe too much nonsense all at once.

As I’ve said before, writing more and more books about Jane Whitefield runs Perry into more and more trouble. There’s only so many different ways she can get people out of trouble, and indeed only so many plausible ways people can get into enough trouble and still look like they’re worth the trouble she goes to to get them back out. And because she needs new tricks and new routines in each book so that there’s novelty to the solutions, Jane gets more and more unstoppable with every iteration. Thomas Perry didn’t used to write people who won every fight they got into no matter the odds.

Not that the odds are that stacked this time around. Poison Flower had a real sense of peril to it because Jane was finally the target - and her job had finally caught up to her the way I always figured it should. This time around, she’s up against idiots, other idiots, and people who are smart but not really that bothered about winning. The last group is the Mafia, and as always when Perry does the Mafia, you get great mileage. Perry’s Mafia has always been full of smart people hamstrung by the inescapable knuckle-headedness of crime, and whenever he swerves off into that world he paints a compelling picture of a dysfunctional workplace which happens to be heavily armed and lacking in scruples. While the Mafia are the biggest threat in the book, they’re so matter of fact and rational that they feel almost like a force for order and decency compared to the villain that gets the action moving. Not that you feel even vaguely sorry for him, but the minute the villain gets between Jane and Mafia, it’s only a question of who kills the creep and how.

So it’s a question of how the journey unfolds, given the inevitability of the destination. And it’s vintage Perry, for all that’s bad and good. The demon eye for detail is still there, but Perry works best when he has something new to say, and some of the best stuff in the book is the small bits of interplay between the side characters. The whole engine of the plot is a James M Cain love story between an inept villain and a naive woman half his age, and Perry puts us inside both their heads to show us the internal monologues and mutual misunderstandings that keep them stumbling in the wrong directions. Jane is both too familiar and too perfect to give us anything like the same ah-ha feeling, and I found myself skimming past her worries and towards everyone else.

It’s still Thomas Perry, and bad Thomas Perry is still better than most other good stuff, but beads or no beads, this string seems to be reaching its end.

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