Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Nightlife, thrilling crime fiction by Thomas Perry– a Review

Nightlife: A Novel

I have enjoyed a number of Thomas Perry’s books, especially the early books in the Jane Whitefield series, a set of books about a Native American woman whose special gifts allow her to help people disappear from the face of the earth, assume new identities, and escape the evil that men would do.

Like the Whitefield series and many of my favorite detective stories (see books by Cara Black (Cara Black's books), Linda Barnes, and many others discussed on this blog), Nightlife also has a woman protagonist: Catherine Hobbs, who is a homicide detective from Portland, Oregon. Catherine is on the trail of a murderer and possible kidnapper, or perhaps several murderers; her picture of the crimes is muddled at first by a profusion of contradictory and incomplete evidence. We, on the other hand, have the advantage of hearing the killer’s own thoughts, though they are dissociated enough from reality that it takes some time to filter them properly and obtain some semblance of the truth.

The first victim whose murder Catherine investigates is Dennis Poole. She is joined nearly from the start by a private detective and retired member of the L. A. district attorney’s office, Joe Pitt. Pitt is extremely charming and an experienced investigator, and was brought on board by Los Angeles-based crime boss Hugo Poole. Hugo and Dennis, as it turns out, were cousins. What bothers Hugo, and Catherine for that matter, is that Dennis was, in a nice way, simply “a nobody”: a nondescript computer salesman in a seemingly boring job, one that he actually loved and was good at. Dennis was not a “player”, he was just a pleasant and unadventurous fellow, highly unlikely to meet the kind of person who would do him in. Yet the murder was clearly committed by a close personal acquaintance, or, more likely, with the unwilling help of such a person. Certainly someone involved was intimate enough with Dennis to have access to his apartment while Dennis was taking a bath. Access enough to walk up to Dennis and shoot him in the head during that relaxing bath. At least he never saw it coming- his eyes were closed while he rested in the tub after a long day at work. Perhaps, Hugo worries, the killing is some kind of retaliation for one of Hugo’s criminal enterprises in L.A.

There is immediate concern about the location of Dennis’ new girlfriend, whose presence is indicated all over the apartment, but who has disappeared. Was she used by a thug to gain entrance to the apartment, is she still alive, was she a witness to the crime?

The excitement and considerable suspense of Nightlife make for an enjoyable ride. At the heart of things is a killer who is nuts (a technical term), but who has developed an extraordinary skill at identity theft, and at preying on unsuspecting victims carefully set up for the kill with detailed planning. The killer’s mental illness manifests in the way that each new personality and identity are truly inhabited, bringing to them an authenticity of performance that fools everyone.

Adding to the suspense, one never knows what the murder will look like, or what the murderer’s new name might be. However, Catherine applies insight and exhaustive detective work to track the schizophrenic killer, hoping to put a stop to the seemingly endless trail of victims who are apparently connected by nothing except their availability and ready assets. Catherine is, however, able to tease out of the matrix of assembled and possibly unrelated data a couple of threads that send her off to investigate.

With a small but significant amount of help from Joe, Catherine finally tracks the killer down, but she is off her home turf, without backup, and in serious danger before she figures out the complete story. When Catherine realizes the new identity that the killer plans to assume, she is horrified, frightened and more determined than ever to try to stop the serial killing. Who survives this final struggle? Read Nightlife to find out.

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