Reading the latest batch of chase-and-escape thrillers by Thomas Perry, Dean Koontz, and Colin Harrison may make you jumpy and more than a little paranoid. On the other hand, they’ll train you, wherever you go, to identify alternate exits.
Perry’s Blood Money features his usual heroine, Jane Whitefield, a one-woman witness protection program who helps people in jeopardy assume new identities. This time, Jane agrees to resettle one Bernie Lupus, a Florida-based codger running from Mafia dons who’ve kept him a virtual prisoner for nearly 50 years. As usual, Perry (Vanishing Act) has devised a plot that is complex and pleasurably convoluted, quirkily original…and never quite convincing. As hard as I tried, I just couldn’t believe that an alliance of crime families would allow only one man to know the whereabouts of their invested wealth. Surely the Mafia knows that people sometimes, you know, die. Still, if you can manage to bury your skepticism and accept Perry’s premise, Blood Money works, though more on a zany level than a scary one: With criminal America amassed and in hot pursuit, humorless Jane, crotchety Bernie, and a crackerjack CPA crisscross the country, giving to charity billions and billions of ill-gotten gangland dollars.
As preposterous as it is, Perry’s setup seems rock solid compared with the one Dean Koontz presents in False Memory. In the bucolic (aren’t they always) Southern California town of Corona del Mar, Martie Rhodes, a freelance videogame designer, becomes concerned when her best friend, Susan Jagger, unaccountably turns agoraphobic—petrified to leave her locked house. Even more unnerving, Susan swears she’s being sexually assaulted night after night while she sleeps. As if all that isn’t bad enough, Martie suddenly develops a phobia of her own: First she becomes scared of her own shadow, then of her own reflection, and finally of herself, irrationally convinced that she’ll give in to violent impulses and murder her husband, Dusty. Simultaneously, Martie’s stoner brother-in-law begins to hear voices in his head commanding him to commit suicide. Longtime Koontz readers know that what at first appears supernatural will later prove to be something else entirely—and that, once again, is the case here. But since the novel is cast as a mystery for a few hundred pages, let’s just say the outcome involves drugs, bogus therapy, hypnotism, ”trigger” words, and a suave villain so completely malign he makes previous Koontz psychos seem barely neurotic.
At half its length, False Memory might have been the best Dean Koontz thriller since 1996’s Intensity. Instead, at 600-plus pages, it’s erratically paced, slackly written, and overwrought. Some passages work well—including one in which Martie becomes traumatized by everything in her well-stocked kitchen from potato peelers to meat-tenderizing hammers. But the sheer bloat — scenes that should’ve taken a paragraph ramble on for pages — stifles Koontz’s gothic imagination.
Both Koontz’s and Perry’s work could have been helped enormously by the kind of rigorous authenticity that Colin Harrison (Manhattan Nocturne) brings to every page of Afterburn, not just a tightly structured novel of suspense but a rich and textured tale of character-as-destiny. Having lost his only son to leukemia and discovered that his daughter can’t have children of her own, multimillionaire Charlie Ravich advertises for a woman to bear his third child. Ravich, 58, accepts his mortality; what he can’t accept is genetic oblivion. His vanity sets in motion a chain of events that brings him together with Christina Welles, a bright and embittered young woman just released from a women’s correctional facility after serving time for ”conspiracy to possess stolen property.” Pursued through Manhattan by her former boyfriend, as well as by a career criminal and the police detective who sent her to prison, Christina feels compelled to cast off her old life and create a new identity – and sees her chance in Charlie Ravich.
Unlike so many other recent American crime novels (James Ellroy’s, for example) Afterburn never splinters into cheap nihilism. Heroism and loyalty are still virtues here; they’re just awfully hard to practice. Hard, not impossible. Harrison has created a world that’s dangerous, cruel, overbright, too fast, and unreliable—but a world that’s worth staying alive in. This is a serious, stylish, generously humane work of fiction. Blood Money: B False Memory: B- Afterburn: A