The Rochester Review, University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, USA

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University of Rochester

Serial Thriller

In Thomas Perry's novels, killers stalk their prey and bodies pile up. Sometimes, the good guys have to go on the run. When they do,
protagonist Jane Whitefield steps in to help. Nobody does it better.

By Jan Fitzpatrick

When the phone rang, Thomas Perry '74 (PhD) was feeling grumpy.

Morning was turning into afternoon, and the day's heat would soon make the sidewalks around his home in the San Fernando Valley hot as an iron, but that wasn't what bothered him. He had been reading the galleys for his next book. Here and there, some copy editor had changed the spelling of a word. Not in order to correct a misspelling, mind you. No. The copy editor had revised Perry's text simply to make every word match whatever spelling the publisher's stylebook preferred. To think of someone laboring to change something that wasn't wrong in the first place, all because of some bureaucratic directive, was just a little irritating.

But it was a minor vexation. As Perry thought back to his days as a graduate student in English at Rochester and walked through the twists and turns that led to his successful career writing action-packed thrillers, the profile that emerged was one of a happy man. And why not? His latest novel, Shadow Woman, appeared last spring to appreciative notices. It was his third to feature the adventures of Jane Whitefield, whom Entertainment Weekly pronounced "the most arresting protagonist in the '90s thriller arena." His next novel, The Face Changers, another Whitefield book, will be on the racks in 1998. The critics love his books. So does his devoted following of readers. And now Random House has signed him to a publishing contract most writers would kill for.

For readers who haven't met Jane: She is one canny lone operative. Half Seneca Indian and half Irish American, she's got the smarts of Agent 007, a set of martial-arts skills that rival Bruce Lee's, the computer savvy of a talented hacker, and great looks to boot. She calls herself a "guide," and her "job" is to rescue people from evil pursuers by helping them disappear. She functions as a one-woman witness relocation program, giving clients on the run new identities pulled from the wardrobe of false identities and credit histories that she has constructed over the years.

She is so confident of her skills and her clients' appreciation that she doesn't even bother to take money from them. The man whom Jane rescues in Shadow Woman asks her if she has taken her fee from a stash of money she has hidden for him. She shakes her head:

"It doesn't work that way. A year from now, maybe two, you'll think about the way your life is. And you'll remember how you felt tonight. And then you'll send me a present."

He raised his eyebrows. "How do you know that?"

"I don't. But over the years I've gotten a lot of presents."

The character of Jane Whitefield has given her creator an occasion to revisit the terrain of his childhood spent growing up in Western New York near Buffalo. Readers familiar with the region will especially appreciate passages like those in which Jane visits Mendon Ponds Park, just southeast of Rochester, and reflects on the history of the vanished Seneca village of Dayodehokto, a casualty of the French and Indian wars.

Inventing Jane Whitefield also has given Perry a way to write about his 50 years on earth. His book jacket bio notes that he was born in Tonawanda, New York, in 1947, graduated from Cornell in 1969, got a Ph.D. from Rochester in 1974, and has been "a laborer, maintenance man, commercial fisherman, weapons mechanic, university administrator and teacher, and television writer and producer."

Reviewers have noticed a possible connection between Perry's wide-ranging career and Jane's exceptional resourcefulness: "Jane knows an impressive amount about a lot of things," New York Times reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in his review of an earlier novel, Vanishing Act. "She knows to aim the pistol low in case her intruder charges into the kitchen instead of walking in upright. When the person turns out to be John Felker, a tall attractive man in his early 40s who wants Jane to help him hide from someone he claims has set him up to be murdered, she knows how to question his complex story. . . . When Jane becomes convinced that John is telling the truth, she agrees to hide him. She helps him steal a boat to cross a lake to Canada. When the outboard motor breaks down, she shows him how to improvise a shear pin with the tongue of his belt buckle."

Living the life of a successful writer was more than what Tom Perry dared hope when he was a graduate student at Rochester. "I'd always wanted to be a writer but felt it necessary to find an honorable and pleasant occupation that contributed something to the world," he says. Becoming a college professor seemed like just the ticket. So right after graduating from Cornell, he moved into his advanced studies. As his daily rounds took him past offices in Morey Hall that belonged to people like George Ford and Anthony Hecht, or Cyrus Hoy and Joseph Summers, he expected that one day Tom Perry would have an office like those, somewhere on another campus.

As he was finishing his doctoral thesis on Knowing in the Novels of William Faulkner, which still sits on the shelves of Rush Rhees Library, Perry put himself on the academic market, only to discover that, in 1974, the promised land of academe wasn't fertile job territory after all. "I was offered a couple of interviews but didn't go," he says, "because they were at places where I couldn't even conceive of living."

So instead of becoming an English professor, Perry took a detour. In what he cheerfully reveals was a case of "taking the path of least resistance, then later imposing a plan on it," Perry headed for the high seas. An opportunity to operate a commercial fishing boat off the coast of Santa Barbara floated toward him,

and he reeled it in. But in a year, after noticing that "there are no old abalone divers" he felt he ought to "get back to doing something closer to my training," and he applied for and won a job at UC Santa Barbara. He both taught and handled administrative responsibilities--budgets and the like--for one of the colleges. Then in 1980, he took another administrative position at the University of Southern California.

But while his days were filled with committee meetings and paperwork, his nights were filled with fictional invention. After completing two manuscripts he thought weren't good enough for publication, he finished a third that he thought was better. Scribner's accepted it, and it appeared in 1982 as The Butcher's Boy--the story of a calculating hit man who kills and kills again. As the body count rises, he is pursued both by a Mafia don and by a young woman named Elizabeth Waring, a computer analyst with the U.S. Justice Department.

Perry's debut was both a critical and popular success. Reviewers praised the book's shrewd plotting, tense pace, and dramatic ironies. The New York Times declared it "clever, knowledgeable, inventive, and suspenseful." It won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for the best first novel of 1982 from the Mystery Writers of America and a silver medal from the Commonwealth Club of California.

In The Butcher's Boy, Perry tells the tale with alternating viewpoints. In one chapter, the reader follows the action from the hit man's viewpoint, sensing edgy fear as he carries out his risky business, and feeling a prickle of anxiety as he stays barely ahead of his pursuers from the Justice Department and the criminal underworld. In another chapter, we are immersed in the heroine's viewpoint, as she tries to determine who and what are behind the series of killings that unfold in the suspense-packed drama. Sometimes, the narrative shifts to the viewpoint of the victims.

This plot device--which encourages the reader to become attached to the villains as well as the heroes--has become a distinctive feature of his other thrillers, too, including the Jane Whitefield novels, and has raised questions about Perry's intentions as an author. "Although I'm guilty of tending to portray criminals in a sympathetic light, it's certainly not something I set out to do as a philosophical statement about crime," Perry told an interviewer for Contemporary Authors. Instead, he explained, he does it because it makes for lively storytelling: "The world of criminals is full of opportunities to show surprising motivations, unusual forms of jeopardy, and humorous or uncomfortable situations the reader, unless he's very unfortunate, will not encounter in the course of his own life."

Perry's novels reveal a sophisticated grasp of storytelling, enriched by his literary studies from grad school days. His all-time favorite author was Faulkner, but he read Conrad and Dickens with great pleasure, and as well the novels of John LeCarre. It made more sense to Perry to prepare for a life as a writer by reading great works of fiction and thinking about how their authors constructed them than by enrolling in a writing program. "I can't name a distinguished author who graduated from such a program," he says. For all the complexity and richness of his novels, they have no literary pretensions. A reader must pay attention as the action unfolds, but need not worry about whether the narrator is lying or playing tricks on him. Perry's choice to be straightforward on this plane follows from the way he thinks about his relationship with readers. "There's no such thing as an 'audience' for a book," he asserts. "There's one other person who is the reader, someone who is a lot like me. My job is to amuse him or her, or as Dickens understood it, to make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait. But it's not to confuse the reader."

Perry's second novel, Metzger's Dog, opened up a career path as a TV writer. He and his wife, Jo, also a writer, were working at USC when a vice president from Universal Studios, who had noticed Perry's gift for dialogue, called to ask if he'd consider writing for television. "He suggested I talk with an agent," Perry says. Instead, "I did what's my substitute for thinking. I walked down the hall and asked my wife what she thought. She said, 'Why not try? If you have a problem, I'll help.'" So the Perrys went to Universal Studios to co-produce Simon and Simon, then to Disney to produce Sidekicks and The Oldest Rookie, then to Viacom for a show called Snoops. They even wrote a Star Trek episode, the one called "Reunion," where Whorf's girlfriend gets killed off.

It was great for a time, Perry reflects, but the six-day weeks and 14-hour days left little time for a family life, which became important to the Perrys with the birth, first of their daughter Alix Elizabeth, in 1989, and then of Isabel Rose, in 1992. By the time Isabel arrived, five of Perry's books had been published, and his reputation as an author was secure. He felt he could become a novelist full time without jeopardizing his family's financial security.

Soon after his first Jane Whitefield novel, Vanishing Act, came out in 1995, his publisher offered him a deal he couldn't refuse. He accepted a contract to produce one Whitefield novel a year until the year 2000. The good news, he says, is that "it allows me to do what I want to do, which is to write novels," and it also gives him an enviable degree of financial security. As a family man, Perry says, he can no longer be "quite as freewheeling and walk out on things as I have in the past." The bad news is that he now has to produce an acceptable final draft of a new novel every June 15 for the next three years.

Perry routinely puts Jane in tough spots, but in Shadow Woman he puts her in one of the toughest. He marries her off to a really nice guy, a doctor she has known for years, and has her promise him she'll give up her high-risk lifestyle in order to be a good wife. Somehow, the reader knows that her resolve will be tested, because it doesn't seem likely that Jane would trade the adventure she has known in the past for a routine, however pleasant, of gourmet cooking and volunteerism. Perry told Time magazine that his friends had warned him against the move: "Don't let Jane get married, or she'll maybe even, you know, have a baby."

Indeed, not only do circumstances in Shadow Woman force her back into her perilous lifestyle, but there is a clear signal at the end of the book that Jane's promise--or marriage--will be tested once again. Keeping a husband around who just wants a normal life is a problem, Perry concedes. "The husband or wife of a thriller protagonist often has a short life span. It's like the best friend of the hero in the movies, the Aldo Ray role. He's a goner as soon as he does something brave."

Regardless of her husband's fate, Jane will be sticking around for a while. Perry has found it an agreeable challenge to write from a woman's viewpoint. "I thought it was time that I learned to write for 51 percent of the population." He is gratified that both women and men seem to like Jane. "Women are pleasantly surprised she's not an 18-year-old former prostitute. Men like her, too. People who read mysteries like something that's fresh. Most of the characters they've seen are relentlessly macho."

Jane is smart, independent, and brave, and she sports bone-crushing martial-arts skills. But she's also warm, intuitive, and sexy. It's a combination that Perry's readers find endlessly intriguing.

Endlessly intriguing that is, at least for the next three Whitefield novels. After that, as Perry told the Los Angeles Times, "Jane goes over Niagara Falls--clutching Dr. Moriarty to her chest in case I need her again."

Freelance writer Jan Fitzpatrick is a frequent contributor to Rochester Review.

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Rochester Review--Volume 60 Number 2--Winter 1997-98
Copyright 1997, University of Rochester
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