(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Thomas Perry’s fiction usually involves stretching one element of the thriller novel—the chase—into the mainspring and focus of his plots. The hunted and the hunter can also change roles, sometimes unknown to each other and perhaps even to the reader. In his early works, it is sometimes difficult, but never totally impossible, to tell the good characters from the bad.

The main device that Perry uses to distinguish his protagonists from his villains in his early novels is to change the point of view from the main character to another character, often filling in that character’s back story, but never at a length that significantly retards the action. Thus we learn that the person whom the main character is going to kill or cause to die is even more worthless than the often amoral protagonist. For example, as the Butcher’s Boy, Perry’s first main character, moves across the United States, killing off various syndicate bosses so that he can survive, readers learn that his victims often need eliminating. The Butcher’s Boy’s lack of a proper name through his first novel reinforces reader identification, and his back story inspires sympathy: Taken in by an older professional assassin, Eddie Mastrewski, whose cover is his butcher shop, the boy can react only as Eddie taught him. The Boy has his own primitive sense of justice: When the syndicate in Buffalo kills an old man who helps people disappear because he tried to help the Boy, he avenges the old man by killing his assassins and their superior, to pay off a debt, as he calls it.

Perry’s next major character, Jane Whitefield, proved to be his most popular. Some critics have attributed this popularity to a supposed deliberately calculated appeal to politically correct shibboleths, such as Jane’s ethnicity and her gender, but as a character, she feels authentic, plausible, and sympathetic. Her Native American heritage is an outgrowth of her growing up in the area of New York in which Perry grew up. Jane’s Deganawida seems very close to Perry’s Tonawanda. Her motivations for becoming a guide fit in with her heritage and her own sense of justice, and she relies on her skills of observation rather than on superior firepower or violence, which she employs only when necessary. Perry also skillfully weaves in Senecan legends and history to support the narrative, and Jane must be as skillful in interpreting her own dreams as she is in her observation of her surroundings.

It could be argued that Perry’s need to make Jane a believable heroine weakened the later novels in this series. Jane is devoted to her calling, but not enough that she would give up a chance at domestic happiness, so when she receives a marriage proposal, she accepts. Her marriage means she must gradually withdraw from her life as a guide and that her motivations for helping victims in her third, fourth, and fifth novels are more tenuous than those in the first two, which are also more effective as novels because their villains are stronger. Shadow Woman (1997), the third Jane Whitefield novel, is not significantly weaker than the first two novels because the villains are mirror images of Jane, but their involvement with her husband is less credible. In The Face-Changers (1998), she becomes a guide at the request of her husband, whose mentor has been falsely accused of murder, and her opponents are shadowy and amorphous until the end. Blood Money (1999), the fifth novel in the series, is even less believable, both in her reasons for helping the victims and in the schemes they all concoct to foil the villains—who are virtually the entire American Mafia. Perry wisely chose to give Jane a sabbatical after this novel.

Perry’s later novels involve him in the problem of maneuvering a somewhat naïve yet good-hearted character to solve a mystery or uncover a criminal scheme, as happens in Dead Aim (2002) when a businessman investigates why a girl committed suicide, and in Death Benefits (2001), in which...

(The entire section is 1641 words.)