When thrillers work best they not only generate tremendous momentum and create indelible characters worthy of emotional attachment, they also assume the reader is smart. Smart enough to deduce conclusions a little earlier than the characters, to learn details in an entertaining manner, and to know that thrills without meaning are like the empty calories of junk food: pleasure-inducing at the time, but eminently forgettable five minutes later.
What I've always liked about Thomas Perry is that he respects his readership, and has done so in the nearly 30 years he's been in this business. "The Butcher's Boy" elicits gasps as much for the audacity of his name-shifting hitman, best known by the paterfamilial nickname given to him as a teen, as it does for the level of attention Perry paid to how the "Boy" in question committed his kills. But a protagonist needs a contrapuntal figure who can stand up to him, and in Elizabeth Waring, the young intelligence analyst tasked with mining data points in seeming obscurity, Perry had her. We take strong female characters for granted in this post-Grafton, post-Paretsky, even post-Larsson world, but in 1982, heroines like Waring — great at their jobs, high-spirited yet enigmatic in their personal lives — were rare indeed.
The Butcher's Boy returned in "Sleeping Dogs" (1992), a sequel long on thrills but not quite up to the excellent standard set by its predecessor. (You're better off enjoying Perry's second effort, "Metzger's Dog," featuring one of the funniest, scariest examples of traffic gridlock ever committed to print.) Then the hitman went dark, and Perry honed and refined his cat-and-mouse capabilities in gems like "Pursuit" (2002), "Nightlife" (2005) and the six-book-strong Jane Whitefield novels, in which a young Native American woman disappears people as she eludes attempts to be herself disappeared by dastardly sorts.
Perry's faltered a little with the last couple of books: The characters didn't quite ring true, the pacing seemed a half-beat off. But whatever ailed him has dissipated with the return of the Butcher's Boy and Elizabeth in "The Informant" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 325 pp., $27) — both older, grayer, perhaps even a little wiser. They are adversaries, each with agendas hidden and obvious, but also allies, both at heart and in practice. There's no romance, and yet their relationship is a romance of the line, where two professionals respect each other greatly and try to work with each other even as they attempt to outwit the other. And, in the process, themselves.
Before we get all existential, it might help to set things up. Waring, in her mid-40s, is widowed, raising two children on her own, and high enough in the FBI to matter to some but not to her new boss, a bureaucratic prig of the highest order who, naturally, looks out for himself best. So the surprise nocturnal visit by the Boy isn't quite what she had in mind, but what we are privy to is how her mind works when in danger, as seen from his perspective: "He watched her stir and become aware of him and stifle the quick reflex movement of her right arm to reach for the gun, forcing herself to go limp again to make him believe she had just stirred in a dream. She was extraordinarily disciplined to calculate that she would not have time to grasp the gun and then abandon the attempt and try to make him think she was still asleep."
"I know who you are," Waring says, and then the terms are disclosed: He's being pursued by the mob, but he's not sure why. That's a hot tip, and Waring wants to make him her informant, but he demurs then, and he keeps demurring as the body count rises, with the first guy ordering the hit getting a taste of his killing medicine, and then so many more. There's a wonderful set piece in which the Boy infiltrates a Phoenix compound doubling as the National Mafiosi Convention, Topic A being all about him. I won't give it away, but what happens—and how the Boy extricates himself from the situation—is straight out of the Richard Stark playbook, especially some of the most vivid scenes in one of the best Parker novels, "Slayground."
Waring, befitting her name, isn't about to relax. She's made overtures to him that she will help him, and also promises her superiors to bring him in. That trouble finds her doorway is an inevitable late-act twist, but even then, with danger riding high, Perry seems to slow things down and keep a cool hand on the action. A nasty assailant needs a clue, because "if he didn't have a clue soon, she would begin to hear the shouts of her children." The image is there, searing, both onstage and offstage, ready to set the collision course where cat and mouse meet one last time.
I've said elsewhere that Thomas Perry's novels — the best ones — are a master class in thriller writing. "The Informant" should be the newest addition to that syllabus, read for devouring first, and analysis thereafter.
Weinman's first "Dark Passages" column appeared at latimes.com/books in April 2007. After four years doing her best to highlight crime novels of note and worth reading, this is her final column. She thanks David Ulin, Nick Owchar, Kris Lindgren, Orli Low, and Jon Thurber for stalwart edits, helpful advice and good cheer. But most of all she thanks readers, for without them, there would be no books to review and no column to write.