Death Benefits

by Thomas Perry

Published by Random House

383 pages, 2001

ISBN: 0679453059

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Putting the "Fun" in Dysfunctional

Reviewed by Patrick A. Smith


At this point in his career, Thomas Perry doesn't have much to prove. He's won an Edgar (The Butcher's Boy, 1982), had a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (Metzger's Dog, 1983) and his Jane Whitefield series, which neatly combines his protagonist's Native American ancestry with the author's own skewed version of the witness protection program, has found a well-deserved loyal following. Perry's latest effort, though, is not like anything he has written before. In its way, that's a good thing.

If you've read Perry and are addicted to his pacing, know that this book looks for another gear -- and it's more downshift than overdrive. Death Benefits slows Perry's typically frenetic pace, making much (perhaps too much) of a short relationship between the young protagonist and a former coworker and manipulating characters into place like chess pieces for the inevitable conclusion. The good news -- and there is good news -- is that the ride is enjoyable, replete with many of the narrative subtleties that Perry has mastered over the years in his quest to redefine the mystery/thriller genre.

The novel's two male protagonists act as foils for one another. There's Stillman, an ex-cop (I'll refrain from using the adjective "grizzled") whose shady reputation may or may not have gotten him booted off the force. Since his fall from grace, he's rebounded with a vengeance and works as a hired gun for the San Francisco office of McClaren Life and Casualty; not surprisingly, he's known for doing whatever it takes to get the job done. And there's Walker, a 24-year-old naïf, an insurance man whose initial inexperience with fraud and murder -- both of which play a role whose scope is not revealed until the book's final chapters -- make the novel a Bildungsroman for the white-collar-crime set.

The two join forces to find Ellen Snyder, a former lover of Walker's and a woman who is suspected in a plot to embezzle money from the firm. What they find, of course, is much different from what they expect to find.

Let the games begin.

Perry scores hits with his flexibility and his willingness to take chances. After all, he could have pounded out several more reliable Jane Whitefield novels without blinking an eye; instead, he married her off.

Seemingly, and importantly, the key for Perry in writing this book is his awareness of his own aging, portrayed nicely through Stillman in a conversation with Walker, after the book's initial setup. Stillman, who has become Walker's mentor in the course of their investigation, explains a few things to his young sidekick in terms of the conversations that separate the young from the old, particularly romantically:

"There's nothing wrong with the conversation, and maybe it's a set of thoughts everybody ought to have pass through his brain at a certain time of his life. Everybody has the right to be young. It's a crime to be the one who's there when a young woman is having some kind of exciting revelation and not be in it with her: to be just kind of watching from a distance and knowing everything she's going to figure out in five steps. Because you're there, she can't be with somebody who will be surprised with her. It denigrates and devalues the experience she's having, makes her suspect that she's naïve and foolish, and destroys it for her. She sees there's no uniqueness in it, and she knows it's not even her thought or experience, because plenty of people have had it first." He frowned at Walker. "You can kill somebody that way."

Given the character's context -- he's much more worldly than his protégé and has obviously given this notion some thought -- Stillman's advice to Walker transcends ersatz philosophizing and explains much of what happens later in the novel. The relationship between Stillman and Walker, not Walker and either of his lovers, is the strongest in the book. We can surmise that Perry takes a step back from the work of writing a thriller and conjures the bigger picture -- life, death, how we make life worthwhile -- into focus. Clearly, the author savors the result of his contemplation. The pacing of the story bears this out.

Stillman and Walker get along by finding common ground, the older man seeing something of himself in the younger man and the younger man seeking balance in his life as he moves into manhood. Clichés to be sure, but conventions of the genre that Perry pulls off in the way that he fashions the relationship. Exploration and revelation are encouraged; respect between the two, after the obligatory period of feints and shadow boxing, is implicit.

Indeed, Walker's journey from innocence to experience is one of discovery for both the characters and the reader and manifests itself in the novel's best scenes. When Walker and Stillman find Ellen Snyder in a shallow grave, Walker recalls the funerals of family members that he attended in his childhood. The scene is surreal. He feels nothing for the body that lies naked, covered only by a thin layer of dirt. Predictably, he steels himself against Ellen's death; the hunted becomes the hunter.

Later, when Walker of necessity makes his first kill, he "knew that his life had been irrevocably altered, not just because this would change the future, but because it had already changed the past, going all the way back. He had not wanted to be the kind of person who did this." Walker grew up in Ohio, which explains some things. Too, though, his character is different after this encounter. His yearning to become fully adult has been realized, but in a way that makes the transformation bittersweet at best.

Even though Perry stakes out some new territory with his male leads -- and those characters, along with a serviceable plot, carry the day -- he creates some characters and situations for whom the word "stock" might be an undeserved compliment. There's Serena (later we find out that her name is Mary Catherine Casey; presumably she has to be given some name), the beautiful, exotic, preternaturally brainy girl with two personalities that she turns on and off at will to get what she wants. She's the Great Manipulator, the multi-hyphenate hottie (wise-beyond-her-years, world-weary-before-her-time, etc.) who, in reality, is as fragile as the author would have us believe she is tough. Go figure.

When she initiates a relationship with Walker, as we know she must, she reminisces about the events that forced her to construct the tough-as-nails exterior:

"I went to college in engineering. The same men who hit on me -- complete with assurances of their love and respect -- also assumed that the reason I was getting good grades was that I was sleeping with professors. Since I didn't sleep with professors, the ones who would have liked me to were resentful. The professors who didn't like the field filling up with women weren't glad to see me sitting in the front row. The others just treated everybody equally, which was lousy." She looked at him closely. "You see, no advantage."

Scenes like this one are built on a cultural shorthand that allows us to fully understand the character simply by reading our society's symbols for "tough broad." We all live with contradictions everyday and they're not nearly as pat as either of the female lead's two personalities. Why does this character, who has much potential, have to be as transparent as she is?

In this case, the rhetorical closeness of the author to his character -- and that character's utility as a plot-driving device -- precludes the author's finding an ironic distance, a place from where he can survey the property and get the principals where they need to be (author Jim Harrison calls it "moving characters in and out of rooms") without quite as much backstage manipulation. More importantly, stepping back would allow the author to decide who this character needs to be.

William Hjortsberg and James Crumley (the first that come to mind and certainly not the only two) are masters of complex, contradictory characters with a past. That Perry presents a character who is little more than a bridge from point A to point B is more an indictment of reader expectations, perhaps, than what the author could give on his best day. Perry has always been a smart writer, and he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Too, the fight scenes in this book are more choreographed than a WWF title match:

"He leaned into them and kept advancing with his knees high, digging hard like a football lineman to keep the two men off balance. His head rang and stung with glancing blows, and he endured two heavy hammer-thumps on his back. He kept moving, but suddenly ducked his left shoulder and swung his right arm higher toward the faces. In the darkness, the sudden hook upward caught someone by surprise and landed between an eye and nose."

It's not so much the length of the song -- this is one of the shorter ones, but none of them go on for so long as to be a distraction -- but the dance steps that are bothersome. Not much different from the Biff! Bam! Pow! fights on Batman, except Batman and Robin wore more interesting outfits.

One would think that by now we would have ways of writing fight scenes that go something like this (by example, a good place to use cultural shorthand): "Good guy takes beating, rallies, gets up, kicks ass (cf. Rocky 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or the Clint Eastwood movies with the orangutan sidekick)." That would simplify things, to be sure, and we could concentrate our energies on keeping up with the intricacies of the plot. The fight scenes in this book accrete like creosote on a telephone pole. By the end of the novel, they all look the same and you know you don't want to touch them.

The mise en scene -- the film term is appropriate, if a bit overdone, for some scenes that read more like script than novel -- uses the coasts of the United States, beginning in San Francisco, moving abruptly to South Florida during a killer hurricane, and ending in New Hampshire. The final scenes come off like Dawn of the Dead (without the cannibalism) meets Deliverance when Stillman, Walker and Serena/Mary uncover a family conspiracy.

The town, which has one way in and one way out, over a covered bridge, has the feel of a movie set. The people move in concert, the houses look like model-train props and the narrative lacks the spontaneity that makes the Jane Whitefield series so likable and the earlier novels so taut and visceral. Even though we're fairly sure that the characters will make their way out of this mess, the journey is the important thing. Here, the journey comes up on more than one roadblock.

Fortunately, Perry is adept at tying up loose ends. In the process of telling a story that is interesting (And what more can we ask, really? Henry James, as pretentious a bookworm as ever lived, decreed that a novel should be, above all else, interesting), Perry makes statements on society's heightened avarice, family values (boy, does he ever) and the ins and outs of relationships. Those statements alone make the story worth reading. But, of course, the plot's the thing. And despite that fact that sometimes the props fall over and the wires show and the curtain doesn't close at exactly the right time, the plot works.

There is more good in this book than at first meets the eye. That's not by coincidence, of course. Like any successful writer, Thomas Perry knows what his fans want to read (and dummies don't win the Edgar). This latest effort will keep the fans that he's already got and may help him pick up a few new ones along the way. One can hope that Perry will keep searching for new ways to tantalize and entertain. | April 2001


Patrick A. Smith lives and writes in Tallahassee, Florida.