What if someone hired husband-and-wife detectives to solve a murder while someone else paid married assassins for hire to make sure the facts of the murder stayed hidden? Well, you’d have Thomas Perry’s latest novel, FORTY THIEVES.
The book is definitely a thriller, although you could mistake it for a mystery. After all, it opens with the body of an unidentified man stuck in a storm drain, as in a murder mystery, and two detectives are hired to find the killer. But after the first few chapters, we spend half our time with the perpetrators, as in a thriller. Which term would the author favor?
“As a rule, I don’t spend much time thinking about genre boundaries,” Perry says. “I’ll use any narrative method that will amuse a reader, regardless of the tradition it came from.”
In either case, it’s the characters that make a novel, and this one kicks off with Sid and Ronnie Abel, a pair of middle-aged former LAPD detectives running a two-person private detective agency in Los Angeles. The likeable pair has built what they think of as a “last chance” agency, the firm that clients take their problems to when everybody else has failed.
“They’re worldly and have seen everything human beings do a couple of times by now,” Perry says, “and they have a kind of wise humor that only seems to develop over the course of a long marriage. I do consider them heroes, but they would simply consider themselves pros.”
To match those pros, Perry gives us a great pair of villains: Ed and Nicole Hoyt. While the Abels have seen everything, the Hoyts have done a lot of things—various professions, relationships, vices—and found them all unsatisfying. That is, until they found each other at a gun enthusiasts’ training camp.
As Perry puts it, “They realized that they were both good at the skills it takes to kill people, and didn’t have any particular objection to killing as a way to live. Their only loyalty is to each other. Each has an unspoken gratitude to the other for saving them from their previous lives of failure and disappointment. As killers they’re content, confident, and even proud of themselves.”
With these intriguing couples on the set, Perry made the daring choice of moving points of view, selecting the character in the best position to see and characterize an event, entering his consciousness for that scene, then switching to another character when a new scene begins. Eventually, we visit the mind of each major character, and we understand them all more fully than we would if we had only seen them from outside.
“This way we also have a better chance of feeling some empathy for even the worst of characters,” Perry says. “The goal is always to write the best, truest, and most intriguing novel I can write. I’ve found that letting the reader be each major character for a time usually works best for me.”
Tension runs through Perry’s novels like the crackle of static electricity. The Boston Globe called him the best suspense writer in the business, but Perry thinks suspense is often misunderstood. It’s not just for mysteries and thrillers, he says, but is a quality of all good stories.
“The suspense in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a thousand times more powerful than anything in Agatha Christie. Suspense is simple: make the reader care about the fate of the characters, and then delay the revelation that will end his worry until he’s earned his relief by reading to the end of the story.”
Perry’s career includes time as a writer and producer on prime time network television. While writing for TV is very different than writing a novel, he says a writer can learn a lot working in TV.
“You learn to write dialogue that a person can actually say and not sound foolish,” Perry says. “You learn to manipulate points of view. You learn when a scene is over.”
Certainly the characters in FORTY THIEVES would be good in a TV series. They are pleasant and interesting to be with for a long time, and their professions and habits suggest a large number of stories. But will we see them again? Only time will tell. Although Perry has written successful series, he never intended to. His series have always started as stand-alone novels. It all began with his first novel, The Butcher’s Boy.
“I was about thirty,” Perry explains, “and so was the protagonist, who was the consummate hit man, betrayed by his employers. Ten years after I wrote it I realized he and I were forty. I knew I had changed, and I wondered how he would be at forty, so I wrote a second book, called Sleeping Dogs. Twenty years after that book, I had a renewed curiosity, so I wrote a third installment, called The Informant.”
And yes, the fourth volume is due in forty years. Meanwhile there’s a second series that grew from the stand-alone novel called, Vanishing Act. That led to a seven follow-ups. And there have been lots of novels in between, 23 in all. With such a body of work you might wonder who Perry compares his work to. As it turns out, he doesn’t. He’ll tell you that the value of a writer depends on his or her originality.
“If anybody remembers any of us when we’re gone, it will be for whatever part of our work would never have existed if we hadn’t thought of it,” Perry says. “If I had imagined that anything in one of my books were like anybody else’s work, I would have deleted it and started a new book, doing my best to come up with ideas that I hadn’t seen or read before.”
I think you’ll find the concept and writing in FORTY THIEVES to be something you’ve never seen before. It shows the kind of great concept a writer can grow out of “What if?”
Thomas Perry was born in Tonawanda, New York in 1947. He received a B.A. from Cornell University in 1969 and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Rochester in 1974. He has worked as a park maintenance man, factory laborer, commercial fisherman, university administrator and teacher, and a writer and producer of prime time network television shows. He lives in Southern California.
Perry is the author of 23 novels including the Jane Whitefield series (Vanishing Act, Dance for the Dead, Shadow Woman, The Face Changers, Blood Money, Runner, Poison Flower, and String of Beads), Death Benefits, and Pursuit, the first recipient of the Gumshoe Award for best novel.
He won the Edgar for The Butcher’s Boy, and Metzger’s Dog was a New York Times Notable Book. The Independent Mystery Booksellers’ Association included Vanishing Act in its “100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century,” and Nightlife was a New York Times bestseller.
Metzger’s Dog was voted one of NPR’s 100 Killer Thrillers–Best Thrillers Ever. Strip was chosen as a New York Times Notable Crime Book for 2010, and The Informant was a New York Times Notable Crime Book for 2011 and won the Barry Award for Best Thriller, 2011. Poison Flower was chosen among Booklist’s Best Crime Novels of 2013.
To learn more about Thomas, please visit his website.