- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2010

STRIP
By Thomas Perry
Houghton Mifflin, $26
352 pages

MURDER IN THE PALAIS ROYAL
By Cara Black
Soho, $25
304 pages

There is always a sardonic twist to Thomas Perry’s characters, and it is personified in Manco Kapak, a mid-level gangster who runs clubs and launders drug money yet professes a distaste for killing people.

As the gangster explains his philosophy to Spence, whom he views as “not a bodyguard but a brother in arms,” his aversion to killing is coupled with a coldblooded awareness that loyalty between friends might demand extreme measures. Spence, a man who can behave like a “point dog” when he sights a human target, understands Kapak, knows how to protect him and tends to his own interests.

The plot revolves around the theft of money from Kapak and the caliber of the thieves. These include Carrie, a beautiful young monster of a woman whose enjoyment of shooting people is disturbing even to her admirers. The men who sleep with her are understandably wary of the darkness that seems to lie deep in Carrie’s eyes and are haunted by fleeting thoughts that they are unlikely to get out of this relationship alive.

And there is Joe Carver, who seems to float above and through the plot as the man who is pursued by the Kapak gang because he is suspected of robbing the gangster of a bag containing $20,000. Carver didn’t do it, yet his sense of humor is perverse enough to make him tantalize Kapak. He goes so far as to show up at Kapak’s house and complain that he is being persecuted.

Kapak doesn’t believe Carver and doesn’t like him, yet is intrigued by him, perhaps in the same way that he is intrigued by his partner, Spence. It is typical of Mr. Perry’s dark humor to have Carver and Spence wind up as partners.

The real twist of the book, however, lies in the fate of Kapak, a gangster more aware than most others of his unsavory kind, that he may come to a dark and bloody end - especially after he kills the man for whom he has been laundering drug money and burns down his house as a cover-up.

At that point, Kapak thinks over what is left of his life. He has an epiphany about what he will do with the rest of what may be a brief existence, given that he is prone to heart attacks. He decides that “winners were alive and losers dead.”

So Kapak retires, showering his employees with money so the tax people won’t get it, then departs for a happy retirement in Paris with his lady friend Sherri, bearing a bottle of pills to ward off heart disease.

Part of Mr. Perry’s final twitch of the plot’s tail is to have Spence and Carver take over Kapak’s clubs. The closing lines reveal the chief reason why Kapak will live free and happy in Paris. It is his parting gift for the detective who has been on his trail yet who turns out, as Kapak suspected, to be an ultimate pragmatist. The lawman happily drives off into the sunset, as it were, with a shopping bag full of money sufficient to put his daughters through college and buy two new cars for his wives.

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Cara Black writes like a sports car out of control in her Aimee Leduc series in which the sexy young detective twirls among romance, death and disaster, while making sure she is wearing the designer clothes and boots she finds in flea markets of Paris.

This time around, Aimee is accused, wrongly of course, of shooting her partner, Rene. She finds herself in a situation in which her only friend is her dog, Miles Davis. She is suspected by the police, and everyone she knows doubts her innocence. Her goal is to find out why she is being impersonated and why she is being set up for allegedly trying to kill the man who is her friend and associate. To complicate matters further, their joint bank account suddenly acquires deposits large enough to arouse the suspicion of authorities as most likely illegal. And there is the mystery of how two new murders involve a young man who went to jail because of Aimee’s testimony years earlier.

Rubbing the blistered feet caused by her stiletto heels or roaring through the streets on her faded pink scooter, Aimee spins to a denouement that almost kills both her and her faithful dog. But the reader never fears that Aimee will not survive. She will be back, whether you like her or not. Yet you have to enjoy a thriller that depends on a high-speed plot that helps the reader avoid being exasperated, if not wearied, by Aimee.

Story Continues →