Death Benefits, by Thomas Perry
Reviewed by Martin Kich
[This review was originally published in The Mystery Review.]
Death Benefits is quite simply one of the best mystery-suspense novels that I have read in the past yearĖin any year.
The two main characters are John Walker, a junior data analyst with McClaren Life and Casualty, and Max Stillman, a self-reliant private operator frequently employed by McClaren to solve complicated cases of fraud. When Walkerís former lover, the assistant manager of the companyís Pasadena office, disappears after approving the fraudulent payout on a $12 million life insurance policy, Stillman recruits Walker to assist him in finding her and the money.
The pairing is in many ways a familiar one. Walker is the uneasy initiate and Stillman the gruff mentor, and as they undertake what amounts to a "road adventure" (in the tradition of Hope and Crosby and of Sugrue and Milodragovitch), they seem reflexively to understand their roles, the parts they are playing in events that quickly assume the shape of an archetypal quest. Still, in this instance, both characters are intelligent and articulate, and so, within a relatively short time, Walker begins to function more as Stillmanís complement than as his inferior.
In the course of the story, Walker even finds a new lover, a computer hacker named Serena (or Mary Catherine Casey) who is also intelligent and articulate and more than holds her own with both Walker and Stillman. Indeed, all three are very engaging, very distinctive and yet well-matched characters. Their dialogue contains the kind of perceptive observation and easy wit that we all wish we were capable of in our real livesĖsomething like a surprisingly credible cross between the best dialogue written by Raymond Chandler and by Colin Dexter.
The action moves from northern to southern California, then to southern Florida during a hurricane, and finally to rural New Hampshire. It has all of the scope and energy of Robert Ludlumís early novels and none of the plodding convolutions of plot that have marred some of his later novels. In each setting, we are introduced to new, vividly drawn minor characters who give the novel a tonal variety to match its geographic range. The initial stage of the quest climaxes somewhat surprisingly about a third of the way into the novel, but the novelís pace continues to build steadily instead of flagging.
This is not a novel for those susceptible to paranoia of any kind, for it ultimately loops together our ingrained apprehensions about seemingly random violent crime, about computer fraud, about all sorts of arcane electronic violations of our privacy, about corrupt and renegade law enforcement agencies, about itinerant clans of confidence men, about the dark secrets of rural communities, and about a world in which even the most intelligent and articulate people can be proven dead wrong about just about everything. (I donít think Iím giving away the plot because I can honestly say that I never felt like I got ahead of the characters until perhaps the very end, when they seem suddenly to be a little slow on the uptake.)
The novelís climax and resolution may, in fact, seem a little overblown to some readers, but I donít think that it exceeds the limits of our suspension of disbelief. In this novel, Perry succeeds in creating a self-contained world which, despite all of its unsettling aspects, most readers will be very reluctant to leave.