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Thomas Perry's Silence: Lost and Lost

The nervy chill of a Perry novel is the transformation of our everyday world into a suddenly terrifying maze.

If you had to — if your life depended on it — how would you disappear? Conversely, if you had to find someone who had erased all traces of a previous existence, how would you go about it? Such questions lie at the heart of Thomas Perry’s suspense novels: crafty, literate and heart-pumping chase sagas about the easily punctured veil of safety and comfort we assume in our lives, told with an omniscience about our modern world that gleams like a wall of CCTV monitors.

“To some extent, we encourage a paranoia in ourselves in society right now,” says Perry in the living room of his Studio City home. He mentions a dream researcher he caught on television once. “She said the most common single dream for both sexes, all ages and all cultures, is one in which the dreamer is being pursued. So we’re hard-wired for that situation, that we’re somehow going to have to react to something bigger and stronger than we are that’s going after us, and we’re going to have to be cunning in some way.”

Perry’s most famous creation is Jane Whitefield, the heroine of five best-sellers he wrote in the 1990s, beginning with the novel Vanishing Act, pegged as one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. A tall, beautiful, agile and cagey half–Native American woman, Whitefield has modernized traditional Seneca aptitudes for hunting, track covering and self-reliance into an off-the-grid business helping troubled clients escape into new lives. Perry sidelined this unique character eight years ago in favor of stand-alone novels. The comfort of a series, he explains, “is not a way to get to be a better writer.” But his pulse-quickening new thriller Silence, his 15th book, is nevertheless inspired by reversing the trick of the Whitefield books: the notion of drawing out someone purposefully hidden.

In Silence, a private investigator named Jack Till, who years ago taught a woman marked for murder how to change her identity — making sure to cut off all contact with her before she put into use her new skill — must now locate her and safely bring her into the light. The reason is to prevent her ex-boyfriend from being framed for her supposed murder, but it’s also a clear ploy by the mysterious figures who know she isn’t dead to make her a visible target once again.

The nervy chill of a Perry novel is the transformation of our everyday world — suburbs, public areas, airports, hotels, streets, commercial centers — into a suddenly terrifying maze of pathways, entrances and exits, the knowledge of which often determines whether a character lives or dies. But he’s also a patient purveyor of thrills, taking the time to create characters rich enough so that their ingenuity is as believable as their emotional response to danger. And in a crowded crime-fiction marketplace that still feels shackled to the confines of gimmicky sleuths, hard-boiled retreads and dead body–investigation–confession trajectories, Perry’s muscular narratives of motion and paranoia — psychological games of hide-and-seek for grown-ups — set him apart.

A polite conversationalist with the unassuming air of a kind uncle, Perry grew up in Tonawanda, New York, with teacher parents who instilled in him a love of reading. “I’d get used to the notion from them that everything that was of any importance that anybody had ever thought or said was on that shelf,” says Perry, who has a Ph.D. in English lit from the University of Rochester, but who reads more nonfiction today — “partly because it helps you gather stuff you can use.” The 60-year-old author adds that creating immediacy in a page turner is ultimately what any good writer should wrestle with: challenging oneself to uniquely evoke the familiar.“If you’re describing a murder, the reader probably doesn’t know that experience, but they do know exactly how it feels to walk down a street and suddenly realize there’s an alley to the left, and there are people over there whom you can’t quite see, and you’re not really sure what they’re engaged in doing or what their intentions are. Those are the things you work on getting right. In other words, how it feels to walk around in our skin.”

It also means his villains are as minutely rendered as his heroes, because in Perry’s eyes, his goal is to redefine the thriller as a matchup “between everything that’s made one person who he or she is, and the same for the opponent. It’s a collision of worldviews and experiences.”

And in Silence, Perry offers up a pair of exquisitely drawn hired assassins in Paul and Sylvie Turner, a married but volatile tango-dancing pair for whom relationship issues carry a slightly more dangerous undertone. In his previous book Nightlife, Perry upended the genre’s vogue for cut-and-dried serial killers by creating a damaged, complex woman who continually reinvents herself in an effort to find a loving, committed man, but resorts to murder when each successive identity crumbles. As a nail biter it delivers, but it is peculiarly exciting as a black parody of our shop-till-you’re-happy culture.

Perry’s attention to well-rounded female characters has given him that rarity among hard-edged male suspense writers: loyal woman readers. (He’s also surrounded by women at home: Jo, his wife of 27 years with whom he used to write television scripts in the 1980s before turning to books full time, and his two teenage daughters.) He says half his e-mails are from people asking when the next Whitefield book will be, and though he has another stand-alone completed, he admits he has Jane in his sights again. “I kind of missed her, thinking about what happens when Jane walks into a Target store, say. She immediately has to scan all the faces, see if there’s anybody she recognizes. She has to be aware of what the parking lot looks like. Can she get to her car if something happens? Is there an exit in the back of the store, or will it set off alarms? Do I want to set off alarms and cause confusion? That stuff is fun.”

That stuff is indeed fun and inevitably more challenging in a more highly scrutinized, surveillance-laden, post-9/11 world, where our powers of observation are heightened, and the notion of escaping detection is perhaps harder than ever.

“In one of the early books,” says Perry, “Jane walks into an airport, plunks down $500 in cash on the counter and says her name is Destiny Vaucluse and wants to fly to wherever. You could do that and nobody cared. Now we hear that and think, ‘My God, that’s utter chaos!’ ”

He laughs. “The world has changed. And that adds to the interest for me.”

SILENCE | By THOMAS PERRY | Harcourt | 439 pages | $25 hardcover


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