Murder, Conspiracy, and High-Stakes Fraud
In 1982, Thomas Perry won an Edgar Award for his debut novel, The Butcher's Boy, and he has since established himself as one our most original, consistently entertaining suspense novelists. For the past several years, in books like Vanishing Act, Blood Money, and Shadow Woman, he has chronicled the adventures of Native American "guide" and escape expert Jane Whitefield. His latest novel, Death Benefits, represents a radical -- and effective -- departure, giving us a witty, informed, thoroughly enjoyable account of murder, conspiracy, and high-stakes insurance fraud.
The hero of Death Benefits is John Walker, a likable 24-year-old data analyst for McClaren Life and Casualty, a venerable San Francisco-based insurance firm. Walker spends the bulk of his working hours performing bloodless analyses of raw statistical data. All of that changes abruptly when he finds himself partnered with Max Spillman, a maverick security consultant hired to investigate a costly -- and ultimately tragic -- insurance scam.
The action begins when McClaren pays out a $12 million death benefit to the man believed to be the legitimate beneficiary of a substantial life insurance policy. Several days later, the real beneficiary shows up, demanding his money. In the ensuing chaos, it is learned that the agent who approved the false payment -- Walker's former girlfriend, Ellen Snyder -- has disappeared, leaving a complex paper trail behind. At this point, Max Spillman, with a bewildered John Walker in tow, begins the process of following that trail to a series of startling revelations.
The initial stages of their journey lead from Pasadena -- where Spillman and his protégé survive a violent encounter with thugs masquerading as policemen -- to an isolated field in Illinois, where the recently murdered Ellen Snyder lies buried. Some weeks later, the investigation resumes in Miami Beach. There, against the vibrant backdrop of a tropical hurricane, Walker stumbles across several additional corpses and begins to discern the outline of a widespread, highly organized criminal conspiracy. As the narrative progresses, moving from Miami to Chicago to a sinister littletown in rural New Hampshire -- a town in which everyone seems to be related to everyone else -- the action intensifies, culminating in an extended climax in which Walker and Spillman -- accompanied by a beautiful outlaw hacker named Mary Catherine Casey -- fight for survival against a vicious, ubiquitous enemy.
En route to that conclusion, Perry offers us his trademark combination of precise observation, credible characters, and clean, unobtrusive prose. Like the best of Perry's earlier work, Death Benefits is a first-class entertainment by a gifted, underappreciated figure. Maybe this time, he'll finally acquire the audience he deserves.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has recently been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
The scam is ingenious, the thrills come fast and furious, but it's the developing relationship between the hardened old pro and his reluctant but pliable protege that distinguishes this superbly crafted novel.
Los Angeles Times
The incomparable Thomas Perry gives us another top-notch thriller with Death Benefitsit’s every bit as good as his Jane Whitefield series. Only Perry could make insurance fraud so heart-stoppingly exciting!
Perry just keeps getting better and better. The lessons he's learned writing his recent Jane Whitfield series come to fruition in his latest novel. This book teams an insurance functionary, John Walker, with a security specialist, Max Stillman, who is brought in by the insurance company to investigate a series of elaborateand outlandishcases of insurance fraud. Before you yawn, let it be said that Perry does for insurance what Elmore Leonard did for Detroit, or what Dick Francis did for horse racing. This is one good, fascinating read. Walker gets roped into the investigation because he once dated the agent under question, the missing Ellen Snyder. What the two stumble into is nothing less than a huge, organized ring of thieves. Walker also gets involved with an odd but appealing female computer hacker, Serena (real name Mary Catherine Casey), who steals every scene she's in. The investigation starts in San Francisco before heading to Los Angeles, then Florida and finally New Hampshire, where things get really weird. Perry's storytelling has slowed from the breakneck speed of his novel Metzger's Dog, and it was the Whitfield series that did it. Rather than wisecracks, here he relies upon a set of smart characters being smartand surprisingly, reading about smart people being smart is engaging and fun.
Randy Michael Signor
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Perry (Blood Money; The Face Changers) serves up a clever entertainment (in the Graham Greene sense of the word) set in the high-stakes insurance world. After a deliberately ambiguous prologue (just why is Ellen Snyder going to an L.A. airport hotel before dawn?), we learn that Ellen, working out of the Pasadena office of a prestigious San Francisco insurance company called McClaren's, recently authorized a 12$- million death benefit payment to a man who turned out to be an imposter. Now both the imposter and Ellen have navished, and McClaren's has called in mysterious operative Max Stillman to investigate the apparent conspiracy to defraud. Stillman oh-so-deftly draws young John Walker, an analyst in the main San Francisco office, into the investigation. Walker cooperates with Stillman because he doesn't believe Ellens's guilty; he's still a little bit in love with her from their training class days, although Ellen's career plans left no room for more than a casual interoffice romance. Casual is the operative word here: a casual remark from Walker to an enigmatic computer hacker named Serena leads to a seriously steamy interlude. And casual is the best way to describe Perry's seemingly effortless method of developing character and building suspense. His style is so assured as to be invisible, seamlessly supplying plot and character information as the chase leads from California to Chicago, Miami and finally a small town in New Hampshire. Though the finale echoes the premise of a particular Dachiell Hammett story, everything else feels as fresh as dawn. (Jan. 16) Forecast: Perry won an Edgar for The Butcher's Boy, and Metzger's Dog was New York Times Notable Book of the Year. This is his finest novel yet and, if sold with enthusiasm, could chart significant numbers. The bold evocative, b&w jacket will help, as will the four-city author tour.
Data analyst John Walker works in the mundane and safe field of insurance. His career at McClaren Life and Casualty is orderly and secure, until freelance investigator Max Stillman appears on the scene. McClaren agent Ellen Snyder has disappeared after authorizing a huge death benefit payout to an imposter. John was involved in a short-lived romance with Ellen, and Max thinks John's insight might help locate Ellen and discover whether she has been party to enormous fraud or is just an innocent dupe. John cannot believe that Ellen participated in the scam, and he agrees to help, hoping that he can find her, clear her name, and also achieve some resolution to their relationship. Under Max's tutelage, John finds investigation not only fascinating but also something for which he has a flair. The two, along with a beautiful but mysterious computer hacker who joins their search, follow the convoluted threads to the roots of the conspiracy in a small New England town, provoking a shocking response. Perry has the knack of creating suspenseful nail-biters, and high school readers will appreciate his latest work as the book equivalent of a roller coaster ride. The occasional love scenes and use of four-letter words gear this thriller toward older teens. Once they pick it up, the inside scoop on the industrial investigation business and nonstop action guarantee that they will not want to put it down. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; Broad general YA appeal; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult). 2001, Random House, 383p, $24.95. Ages 15 to Adult. Reviewer: Joanna Morrison
Edgar Award-winning novelist Perry, who always provides a good read, takes a step up from last year's Blood Money with a solid, character-driven story that makes even the insurance business seem fascinating. John Walker, a young data analyst for McClaren Life and Casualty, finds himself on the streets with a shrewd but enigmatic partner, an older security expert named Max Stillman who has been hired by the firm to track down the thieves behind a $12 million scam. The agent who approved the fraudulent death benefit, a woman Walker once loved, has disappeared. Is she part of the rip-off or a victim of a much larger conspiracy? With the help of Serena, a quirky computer expert who develops an intriguing relationship with Walker, the two men follow a trail that leads from California to Illinois to Florida and finally to a deadly confrontation in the deceptively peaceful New Hampshire countryside. Throughout, one senses, unseen, the sure hand of a master craftsman. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/1/00.]--Ronnie H. Terpening, Univ. of Arizona, Tucson Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Best known for his Jane Whitefield thrillers, Edgar Award winner Perry has created two equally compelling characters in his latest outing...The hardboiled dialogue, quirky characters and careful pacing deliver some chilling fun...Thrills well insured.
From the Publisher
"Thomas Perry is, quite simply, brilliant. And as each book comes out he becomes more so." ---Robert B. Parker
Read an Excerpt
Ellen leaned forward over the sink and took a last, critical look at her makeup in the bathroom mirror. She could see that the eyes were good. The way to look trustworthy was to look trusting, and her eyes seemed big and blue and wide-open. The color on the cheeks was good, too: she could tell it was clear, smooth, and natural, even though the mirror was pocked with black spots, and the light in here was harsh and yellow. But she intended to be there early enough to slip into the ladies' room, do a recheck, and make any necessary revisions before she was seen. She had been training herself not to take anything for granted since she was nine years old, and she was twenty-four now. Not to anticipate problems was to invite them.
She went back into her kitchen, picked her purse off the table, and slung it over her shoulder, then opened her thin leather briefcase to be sure she had everything. She always carried a small kit consisting of the brochures and forms necessary to commit a customer to one of the common policies: term life, whole life, health, home owner's, auto. Before she had left the office last night, she had added some of the more exotic ones to cover art, jewelry, planes, and boats. The application forms she carried always had her name typed in as agent, with her telephone extension and office and e-mail addresses in the other boxes, and her signature already in the space at the bottom. She never left the home office in doubt about who should get the commission.
Clipped to the inside of her briefcase she carried a slim gold pen that felt good in a customer's hand when he signed his name, and she kept an identical one, never used, out of sight below it so there could never be a moment when she was ready to close on a customer and couldn't. Taking a few simple, habitual precautions was usually enough to keep her from lying in bed at night worrying about lost opportunity, failure, and humiliation.
She reached into the other side of the divider in her briefcase, pulled out the claim forms she had prepared, and examined them. She was not proofreading the entries. She knew there were no mistakes. She had been up late, studying the files, filling in the blank spaces on the forms with a typewriter, so there would be no real paperwork left to do. This morning
she used the forms to test her memory of family names, addresses, dates.
She had no illusion that she was engaged in anything but an act of dissimulation. It was conscious, studied, and practiced, and anything less than a flawless performance would be a disaster. When she had all the personal details by heart it made her listener feel as though she cared about him. Having them wrong was to be caught out as a hypocrite and a fraud. If she convinced her listener that she cared — really had his interests at heart — then she was not halfway there, she was all the way.
Ellen made sure the coffee was unplugged and the lights were all off before she went out the door and locked it. As she turned, she heard a sudden noise over her shoulder and jumped. She stared in the direction of the sound, and decided it was nothing — just an orange falling from the tree in the corner of the yard. But it was still an hour before the sun would
be up, and even Pasadena could be a bit creepy in the darkness and silence.
She knew that if she screamed, she couldn't expect the other four girls who lived in the small apartments in this building to come to her rescue, but they would at least wake up and look out their windows to see what was
going on. If somebody grabbed her, she must not rely on her neighbors altruism. She must yell "Fire!"while she fought. She had read that this was what the experts advised, and so that was what she would try to do.
She wished she weren't feeling so jumpy. For the past two days she had been increasingly anxious, and the discomfort seemed to have gotten more vivid this morning. She had to remind herself that this was not something to be afraid of. It was an opportunity. If she used it well, it was a step toward getting everything she wanted.
She looked down the empty driveway at the street, then stepped toward the open garage where her car was parked, and took the time to check and be sure the car was locked. This compulsion to check everything made her a bit ashamed. She had not just been worrying about accomplishing what she had to do this morning. She had been having feelings that something was wrong. At times, she had detected the sensation that someone was watching her. Yesterday she had been walking down the street in Old Town, looking in shops not far from the office, and had sensed eyes on her. She had
stopped abruptly, pretending to look in a store window, and studied the sidewalk behind her in the reflection. She had waited until the other pedestrians had walked past her and had determined that they all appeared harmless before she moved on. She had told herself that she had just sensed some man staring at her. They did that, after all, and they meant
no harm. But she had not convinced herself: when they meant no harm, they were always easy to catch. They wanted to be caught.
She made her way down the driveway to wait for the cab to arrive. She glanced at her watch. It was still not even five a.m. There was no reason to feel impatient. The cab wasn't late; she was early. Probably she had been spending too much time alone lately.
She defended herself from her own accusation. The isolation had not really been her fault. Even after a year here, the people in the Pasadena office were still the only people she knew in southern California. She had seen at the beginning that none of them were likely to become close friends. At best they were allies, and at worst they were obstacles, fixed objects she
would have to work her way around. To get what she needed, she would have to deceive them about her feelings, keep certain information she picked up away from them, and use it to her advantage, all the while smiling and evading. She had done that. No wonder she was nervous.
She stared up the dark street, searching for headlights. In the heavy stillness of the residential neighborhood, she could hear distant engine sounds at the far end of the next block, where the street met Colorado Boulevard. Every few seconds, a car or truck would swish past the intersection, but none of them made the turn. The faintness of the sounds reminded her of how alone she was.
She had read an article in a women's magazine that said if a person had a feeling — an uneasy intuition that something was wrong, that a man she was with made her uncomfortable, that a place made her feel vulnerable — she should not ignore it. Her eyes had probably seen something, her ears had probably heard something, but her mind was trying to brush it aside and explain it away because denial was easier than facing the danger.
Ellen caught herself forming a clear mental image of John Walker. She could see his dark brown hair, his calm, wise eyes. She was sure it was the uneasiness that had brought him back. When she had been with him, she had always felt safe. It was not just because he was tall and broad-shouldered and physically fit. He had a quiet, thoughtful manner, and he was reliable. She felt a sharp pang that surprised her. She could have been with him — maybe not married him, because that would have ruined everything, but at least had him nearby. Driving over here before dawn to pick her up was exactly the sort of thing he would have done, and she would have known — positively known — that he would be here on time. She made an effort to push him out of her mind and obscure his image in her memory. The worst thing for a person to worry about was some decision she had made in the past.
From the Hardcover edition.