I heard good things about The Butcher’s Boy, Thomas Perry’s first novel. I found it, I read it, I loved it. I loved the second one too, I liked the first half dozen: a lot.
A few novels in they started to group. The first group I recognized concerned Jane Whitefield, a Five Tribes descendant who brilliantly and bravely helps people escape bureaucracy. I welcomed a female hero, I applauded her self-reliance, her invention, her unconventionality. For nearly two decades now I’ll still read any Perry title I don’t recognize, anything seemingly new; but now I can barely bare them. And I’ll say why, scrapbook fashion.
The Butcher’s Boy pulled a marvelous variation against type, a contradiction of type: the brilliant detective pursues the brilliant criminal … [Spoiler] At the end, hero (bureaucrat) and villain (anarchist hero) are on the same place, across the ailse from each other, both flying from US to Britain … and the novel ends with neither knowing of the other’s presence. (That’s right! Don’t give me a pope who’s blessed by God, give me a pope who treads on Jesus and doesn’t know shit, not even that he has his toe in Jesus’ windpipe: that’s the reality I’ve lived in.)
Then his Indian hero circumvented the kleptocrats: Jane Whitefield made people disappear.
But now, in Nightlife, there are several things wrong (to this sensibility):
We’re accustomed to Serlock Holmes being brilliant while Watson is conventional and everyone else (except Professor Moriarty) is stupid. The citizens are stupid, the press is stupid, the society is stupid, Scotland Yard is stupid … Then we’re also used to everyone being corrupt: and we think Sam Spade is corrupt too, and Philip Marlowe … but the story proves that Sam Spade isn’t quite as corrupt as he allows people to believe. Still: Hammett, Chandler join Doyle is giving us one hero, not a bedlam of heroes.
Nightlife shows us a brilliant sociopath. Good, I love it. But then the novel gives us a smart cop, armor plated with integrity: that’s one hero too many. But he doesn’t stop: every cop we get more than a paragraph on is brilliant, and has integrity. Then we meet more sociopaths, and more: stop! It’s a surfeit. A plethora.
But the worst thing of all: we’re supposed to believe that the bureaucrats of the kleptocracy, the cops, for example, are on the side of good, or order, of something positive; rather than representing coercion, and stupidity … dishonest institutions, and self-preserving privileges. Only it’s not the Church anymore which is the Whore of Babylon, it’s everybody.
Who’s the real hero? The schmucks who buy the book and sit with crumbs in their lap, same as if they were watching TV.