Let Me Kill You, Sweetheart

Summertime and the thrillers are easy. O! Tidings of mystery and cops, mystery and cops.

The paperback shelves are filled with thrillers, suspense, and romance covers that look like Atkins diet bars, hanging on beyond their use-by date. The hardcover shelves are filled with crime-solving cats, dogs, and real estate brokers. It begins to look like a long, hot summer.

Until.

You pick up something called “Silence,” which has that functional, foreboding look of a well-cared-for hand gun, test it for heft, and then begin turning pages. If you get the same break I got, you come to a section in which a middle-aged couple, Paul and Sylvie Turner, are getting into some husband-and-wife jealousy mischief at a tango lesson. Paul is a gray-at-the-temples hunk. Don’t think Mindy, the tango instructor, hasn’t noticed. Sylvie has certainly noticed Mindy’s attentions toward Paul, in fact noticed to the point where she has felt the squirt of jealousy necessary to set her thinking revenge.

After a bit more riffling of pages, you hit pay dirt again. The Turners are really at it. At the start of Chapter Twenty, their argument is about jealousy, which is somewhat ironic because Sylvie, in addition to being bright, has a past history before cameras.

After a few pages, their argument switches to respect, as in Rodney Dangerfield and I don’t get none: “You were really nasty to me after I shot that black woman. I heard the commotion, then ran in and saw her biting and scratching you and going for your eyes, so I did it. That’s all. And since then, you’ve been hurting my feelings. Is it because a woman was about to kick your ass and I’m the witness? Or is it because I’m a woman, and I saved you?”

Shows promise, wouldn’t you say?

“If I had wanted her dead,” Paul responds, “I would have shot her myself. I have a gun. You knew that.”

Okay, so we’re in. Let’s go have a look at the beginning.

Jack Till, a former LAPD detective, is now a private investigator. His specialty has become helping people disappear without leaving a trace. Six years ago, he helped Wendy Harper disappear; taught her how to stay disappeared so that the person who was trying to have her killed stood no chance of finding her, no matter how hard he tried.

Coming home from work in the highly successful restaurant she ran with Eric Fuller, Wendy is lulled by the lateness of the hour and her bone tiredness. She does not see the man with the baseball bat as he steps out of the shadows, swinging for her knees to bring her down.

The person who wants Wendy dead remains quite serious about that goal, six years after having wanted her dead in the first place. He arranges for the discovery of evidence – the baseball bat and a blouse Wendy wore the night of the attack – that cause Eric Fuller, former boyfriend-business partner to be suspected of and arrested for her murder. There! That ought to smoke Wendy out.

Now we’re rolling.

Jack Till, who helped Wendy Harper disappear, now has to find her, convince her to return to L.A. in order to prove she has not been murdered, all the while protecting her from – you guessed it, didn’t you? – Paul and Sylvie Turner, the tango-dancing couple whose daytime job is killing-for-hire.

Such is the nature of Thomas Perry’s new thriller, “Silence,” from Harcourt, one of the more literary book publishers, under the imprint many mystery-suspense readers will recognize, An Otto Penzler Book.

“Silence” is Perry’s fifteenth thriller, of which it is understatement to use such attributions as highly plausible, intriguingly suspenseful, undershot with the subtext of what William Faulkner called the agony of moral choice.

Good attributions these days as they relate to new automobiles are “fuel stingy,” “hybrid,” and “tiny carbon footprint.” Seems to me the salient attributions in mystery/suspense fiction are: “Well plotted” and “Convincing characters.” With few exceptions, Perry out-plots and convincingly renders characters to a degree we simply aren’t used to in our summer reading.

This trumping extends beyond the ongoing squabbles between Paul and Sylvie or the fact of the Ginger-Fred equivalent of hired assassins who happen to be caught up in the lure of dancing the tango. With Perry, it is a given that the good guys have a conscience and are bound to it by a set of rules. Mark that down: good guys=conscience; bad guys=agenda. When these elements clash, we get people caught up in a story with several dimensions of complexity.

No spoilers beyond this point; promise.

Jack Till knows he’s being watched, but not by whom. We get to see him in a brief, lovely scene with the ex-boyfriend/business partner who’d been framed for her murder. He has some convincing reasons not to be too happy with Wendy or, for that matter, Jack. After a number of misadventures, Till finds Wendy. “He had been allowing himself to think about Wendy Harper again, to picture her and remember her voice, but he had not realized how much emotion he had invested in the prospect of seeing her again. In his mind, she had always been the woman he had met in the wrong way at the wrong time, the wasted chance.”

Questioning her at one point, Till reminds Wendy: “You know the identity of a person who is missing and maybe dead, at least a description of the murder suspect, and had a good long look at an assailant who is probably working for him.”

And the chase is on, ranging from the Santa Barbara airport to a suburb of Las Vegas, to a particularly underused, unpopulated stretch of Highway 101 between King City and Soledad. The chase is interspersed with background that bring Till and Wendy farther out of the shadows of early, self-preservative action, and let us in on surprise revelations about Paul and Sylvie Turner to the point where we come to the unmistakable conclusion that we know too much about all these key players – and the persons behind them – to be let off with an anticipated, formulaic ending. You know: we find out who hired Paul and Sylvie, they get theirs, and Jack Till and Wendy disappear into the sunset or at least into the parking lot of Du-Pars on Ventura Boulevard at Laurel Canyon.

Yeah, right.

I’d like to find out from Jack Till how Thomas Perry has managed to be so relatively undetected after having done so much for so long with a genre we all admire and come back to, again and again.