Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Butcher's Boy, by Thomas Perry

The Butcher's Boy is a hired assassin who commits two perfect murders and goes to Las Vegas to collect his fee, only to find that his employers are trying to kill him. He must first figure out who his employers are (most likely one of three organized crime bosses), and kill them.

Killing a mob boss is no easy feat, but the butcher's boy is really good. He is so smart and clever, and pulls so many awesome stunts during the novel that I never doubted he could succeed. And despite his being as assassin, I really wanted him to win.

The other main character is Elizabeth Waring, an analyst from the Justice Department who is out to solve the murders commited by the butcher's boy. She's really smart too, but not smart enough.The scenes are split between hers and his narratives, which occasionally is a jarring tactic. Or perhaps it is a testament to Perry's great scene writing that he seemed to switch it up just when I was feeling extremely invested in a particular scene and character. We get Elizabeth's point of view initially, and at first I was a bit put off by going inside the killer's head (this is a tactic so often used poorly that I've come to generally mistrust it), but over time the butcher's boy's scenes became so much more prominent and interesting than Elizabeth's that I didn't want to spend any time away from him.

Most of the fun in this novel is in watching the butcher's boy work, and trying to figure out why he's doing whatever he's doing; and he always has a perfectly plotted reason for his intriguing actions that left me wondering, "how did he ever hatch that plan so quickly?" In one scene he breaks into a backyard and starts clipping and moving hoses and wires and then gets in the pool with this rifle and just when I'm feeling really stumped this fire starts, and when a guy with a gun comes out to investigate, this hose is rigged to spray him in the face and distract him so the butcher's boy can shoot him from the pool, and beleive it or not this is just the beginning of a more complicated and brilliantly thought out plot to kill lots of people. At times like these, the butcher's boy reminded me of a deadly McGyver (yes, I had a huge crush on McGyver; I always fantasized that we'd run away to some deserted island where he'd construct us a five star hut using only the island's natural resources, some dental floss, and chewing gum).

One of my pet peeves in mystery novels is when the main characters keep secrets from the reader. However, I didn't mind at all when the butcher's boy didn't explain his intricate plots to me because watching them play out was always more satisfying than hearing them explained in advance.

The reader's relationship to the two main characters is perfectly done: the butcher's boy is much smarter than us and is constantly surprising and impressing us with his leaps in reasoning and action, while Elizabeth is not quite as saavy as us, and she makes two critical mistakes that I totally saw coming and tried to warn her about, but of course she didn't listen to me, and it was somewhat satisfying to see her get duped in an "I told you so" way.

The writing is smooth and commercial - Perry doesn't let anything get in the way of telling his story (and he's got a great story to tell). However, I enjoy a bit of literary flair here and there, and for that reason I don't think I'm going to read another book by Perry any time soon. But for readers looking for a no literary frills mystery with a truly fantastic plot this book is a must read. It won the Edgar Award for best first novel when it was first published over twenty years ago and is still in print today, so obviously I'm not the only one who thinks it's worth a read.

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