The Suspense Is Deadly

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What I would like to know is how Thomas Perry does it.

Most sophisticated mystery readers already know he’s one of the greatest living writers of suspense fiction. As none other than Stephen King (himself no slouch at creating suspense) said on the dust jacket of Mr. Perry’s latest thriller: “There are probably only half a dozen suspense writers now alive who can be depended upon to deliver highvoltage shocks, vivid, sympathetic characters, and compelling narratives each time they publish. Thomas Perry is one of them.”

That is, however, not what I’m talking about. I want to know how he understands women so well.

Any number of the astounding achievements of history – landing on the moon, splitting the atom, removing the heart of a living person and replacing it – they are nothing compared to a man understanding a woman. It may work the other way, too, but I’ll never know.

Mr. Perry has two highly intelligent, attractive women in his best-selling “Nightlife” (Random House, $24.95, 373 pages) who are polar opposites on the lovability scale.

Tanya Starling waits for her boyfriend to come home from work, runs a warm bath for him, and, with his head resting on a folded towel, shoots him behind the ear. Although they were together for only a month, she had the sense that he was about to get cheap with her, deny her things, so she kills him.

This murder is Tanya’s first and begins her career as a serial killer. She is not a genius like Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, nor a depraved religious fanatic slaughtering good people because God told her He wants them,as in a hundred serial killer novels and too many movies.No,she erases her victims because it is the easiest way for her to eliminate a problem.

Tanya, who changes her name as often as her shoes, is chillingly believable as a serial killer because she is ice. She even thinks fondly of her victims for brief moments, then metaphorically shrugs, as if to say, ‘Well, too bad, but it couldn’t be helped.’

Soon after shooting her boyfriend, she goes for a drive and thinks of him, saying aloud, “At least we had a good time.” Because “her face felt so right when she said it that she held the expression,and flipped down the sun visor to look at her reflection in the makeup mirror. Perfect.The full lips pouted, the sparkly blue eyes were wistful and wise. She revised the words slightly.”‘At least we had fun.’ The way the row of small white teeth touched the lower lip to say ‘fun’ was worth going for.”

These are the actions of someone with nothing inside, as empty as the head of a teenager waiting outside a hotel to catch a glimpse of Josh Hartnett and screaming in ecstasy as he races to his waiting limousine.

Tanya stands in front of the mirror practicing sentences and facial expressions so that she will look like someone who actually feels something, someone who will respond the way she thinks other people would be likely to respond. “Her best new look was a serene, smooth-faced expression that was at once benevolent and superior, the habitual demeanor of a just queen,” Mr. Perry writes.

As Tanya disposes of more and more obstacles to her concept of happiness (which is to become richer than the man who dumped her a while back),the various law enforcement agencies chasing her remain convinced she is not working alone, or, in fact, may even be a victim, since women – especially women like her – simply do not become serial killers.

It takes another woman, Sergeant Catherine Hobbes of the Portland (Ore.) Police Department, to set the guys straight. And there are quite a few guys. It seems the first victim was the nephew of a powerful underworld figure who hired a private detective after the murder to find the killer and report back. The victim’s uncle being who he is, it would be intolerable to let someone get away with murdering a family member.

It doesn’t take Hobbes long to figure out who – and what – she’s hunting, becoming a relentless pursuer.As Tanya senses a net tightening around her, she understands that her nemesis can only be the female cop who was on her tail from the beginning, and decides to deal with her in the normal way – kill her. The hunter becomes the hunted.

As with many of Mr. Perry’s other novel, “Nightlife” is largely the story of a chase. Many of these are published every year.A major difference between the large stack of them in one corner and Mr.Perry’s books in the other is that he somehow skipped the class on cliches.There are no car chases here, no shootouts, no infallible trap from which the killer brilliantly escapes just when it seemed impossible.

All good literature must be character-driven. Mr. Perry’s characters come to life with a single sentence so that you know exactly who you’re dealing with.

For example, when the gangster first hires private eye Joe Pitt, who he knows has a gambling problem and needs the money. “The gambling isn’t the problem,” Pitt replies, “it’s the losing.” When Pitt resigns, the uncle hires another P.I.: “When Calvin Dunn arrived, violence was not a remote possibility but something already present in the room with him.”

As with his first novel, the stunning Edgar winner “The Butcher’s Boy,” happily just reissued with a new introduction by Michael Connelly (Vintage, 313 pages, $12.95), an excellent female character carries the day. She’s not Wonder Woman, just a decent, hardworking cop who is smart and patient enough (especially with her male superiors and colleagues) to get it, to understand what is going on and what to do about it.

Which, when you consider how rare that is, might be right up there with the heart transplant thing.

Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual “Best American Mystery Stories.” He can be reached at

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