The Butcher’s Boy

Thomas Perry, The Butcher’s Boy
(Random House, 2003, first published in 1982)

The Butcher’s Boy, as rivetting today as it was in 1982 when I first read it. The story of a professional killer, tracked by a lady. Perry is best with ‘lady trackers’ and has a whole series of Jane Whitfield novels where a Buffalo partial Indian provides disappearing services to people who must go underground.

This book, his first, won numerous awards. There is not a throw-away character in the book.

The plot is: Murder has always been easy for the Butcher’s Boy — it’s what he was raised to do. But when he kills the senior senator from Colorado and arrives in Las Vegas to pick up his fee, he learns that he has become a liability to his shadowy employers. His actions attract the attention of police specialists who watch the world of organized crime, but though everyone knows that something big is going on, only Elizabeth Waring, a bright young analyst in the Justice Department, works her way closer to the truth, and to the frightening man behind it.

Michael Connelly (a wonderful writer in his own right), wrote an introduction to the re-issuance of this book which captures the magic of it:

… All characters, all action, relentlessly moving toward the same vanishing point on the horizon. They asked me to write a few pages here, but I think I could have covered it with one word: relentless. This book is a relentless journey in a car with no mirrors. No looking back.

This velocity is also created by the masterly intertwining of multiple narrative tracks. Perry came out of the gate with a narrative that would offer a great challenge to any writer. How do you bond the reader to a professional hit man? How do you get the reader to get in the car with a killer? Perry answered the call by creating a character who is meticulously detailed in all ways but his name. The telling details of life on the road and on the run connect him to us. His ingenuity and skills win the day.

Perry also balances the outlaw portrait with another strong character, that of the heretofore deskbound crime analyst Elizabeth Waring. She’s unsteady in her new surroundings yet just as professional as her quarry. The juxtaposition of these two characters as they move separately but ultimately closer and closer is the gasoline that drives this car. It is rare that I have seen this pulled off successfully, and never with such success in a first novel.

Riding along all through this journey is Thomas Perry’s command. The authenticity is on display on every page, in every paragraph. From how hot desert air feels on the skin in Las Vegas to how paperwork is shuffled in the Justice Department to how a hired killer slips into a locked hotel room to fulfill a contract, the author’s skill in creating his world repeatedly awes the reader. Verisimilitude. Every page is absolutely authentic, and that creates a velocity of its own.

Character, control, and momentum. Perry has pulled off a wonderful trifecta in this novel. It is a rare accomplishment. So unusual is a book like this that it reminds me of how its own character Elizabeth Waring viewed her search for an unnamed, unknown hit man.

It was like trying to capture an animal that was so small and rare and elusive that you sometimes doubted that it existed.

Well, Thomas Perry captures the rare animal with this book. It exists. There are no doubts.

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