March 6, 2001
by Kay Kimbrough
Random House, 2001, $24.95.
Thomas Perry's latest thriller involves insurance fraud. A young woman who has just paid a $12,000,000 death benefit to an imposter has disappeared, and McClaren Life and Casualty has hired Max Stillman to find her and recover the money. He chooses John Walker, a data analyst, to assist him because Walker had a love affair with Ellen before she left San Francisco for a smaller McClaren office, where she thought she could achieve more success in less time. Walker had been hurt by her abrupt dismissal of him, not knowing how ambitious she was and how determined she was to get to the top of the company.
The two men embark on a hunt that takes them to Chicago, Florida, and, finally, New Hampshire, where the mystery is solved in a tense and dramatic finale that is as unbelievable as it is exciting. Along the way, the characters of the two men emerge: two very different but likable Americans, a cynical and ruthless security consultant and a young, naive Midwesterner with ideals and faith in human nature. Each learns from the other, Max becoming more human and John much wiser.
The plot which led to the disappearance of Ellen Snyder allows Perry to philosophize about good and evil, ambition and complacence, life and death, and appearance and reality. Max instructs John on the importance of age in relationships: "Age isn't a matter of propriety. It's a whole series of inexorable changes that have already happened before you notice them. The ones you can't see are bigger than the ones you can. One day you just discover that you can't watch this movie or read this book or have this conversation anymore....It's a crime to be the one who's there when a young woman is having some kind of exciting revelation and not be in it with her...."
John reflects on the contrast between a live body and a dead one:
"It had amazed him since he was a child, when he had gone to funerals of relatives who lay in coffins somewhere between deep sleep and not being the same person at all. They seemed to be some not-quite-accurate statue made by an artist who had never met them and only reconstructed a likeness from a photograph....In death, the body had lost its particularity and become a type, an example of a class of human bodies." His reaction to death is recalled when he confronts one of the villains in the conspiracy he and Max uncover and is met with a face wearing a look that is "unspeakable, not the look of conscious evil, but a look of something that wasn't exactly human. The eyes were watching him, not with cruelty but with an undistracted interest that was completely devoid of empathy, like an animal looking at something that was part of its diet."
John faces physical death and emotional death, and he finds romance with a wonder woman who is as unbelievable as he is believable. Never mind. In a world of subhuman evil and greed, it takes heroines larger than life to rescue naive young men.
The plot of this story is fantastic, the solution to the mystery like a Super Man miracle, but the characters are brought back into the real world at the end. The effect of reading DEATH BENEFIT is like that of a nightmare that makes you glad to be out of it when you wake up. It is the kind of nightmare you like to tell someone else about, though, proud of your subconscious complexity and the fact that you remember the story.
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