- - Thursday, January 8, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A STRING OF BEADS

By Thomas Perry

Grove Atlantic, $26, 308 pages

Jane Whitefield is unique in the annals of detective fiction. She is a throwback to a tribal world, still loyal to the beliefs of the Seneca Indians and still adhering to the call of a lost era. Thomas Perry has once again resurrected a remarkable character who seems imbued with a strange immortality and an unusual morality, and he is to be congratulated.

Ostensibly the wife of a surgeon in a conventional suburban world, Jane remains absorbed in her deep belief in the Seneca tribe. She is, when necessary, reliving the life of a Seneca warrior when she finds herself involved in projects involving her rescue of those escaping from danger. She is very good at what she does, perhaps because it is the kind of tracking that is part of her ancestry.

In this case, her tranquil life is interrupted almost violently by the appearance of the female leaders of the eight Seneca clans parked in her driveway in two large black cars. They need her help and ignore the angry objections of her husband, who recalls that Jane is still suffering from the after-effects of her last grim project when she was tortured and almost killed. The Seneca leaders need her, and there are no higher stakes than the safety of one of their own. They expect to get her help, and they do. It is a rescue mission that involves Jimmy, a childhood friend of Jane’s from the Seneca reservation who is in trouble with the police and has disappeared while facing a murder charge.

The Seneca “clan mothers” want Jane to find him and establish his innocence, despite the fact that she knows nothing of the facts of the case. What matters is that Jane and Jimmy were friends at the age of 14, and she finds him by retracing a complicated walking trip they took together. What is fascinating is that Jimmy knows that Jane will find him, leaving one mysterious message to tell her he has gone to the old place. Theirs was no normal walk, the author emphasizes.

“They would travel as the old people had, speaking only Onondawaga and visit places that had not been changed, tamed or demolished . They were going back to the indeterminate time before the arrival of white people.”

Jane becomes the tall, dark shadow who follows the cast of criminals with whom Jimmy has become involved, the most alarming of whom are members of the Mafia. She acknowledges that she steers clear of the tentacles of the mob and its ruthlessness, yet when she has to, she will take them on, matching their guns with her skill with a knife and her knowledge of the natural world.

Mr. Perry always has a twisting and turning plot, yet what is most intriguing about his Whitefield series is the intense detail that accompanies its developments. Jane is not only fearless but rises to meet every emergency, and she shows a remarkable patience in dealing with those whom she is trying to save, even when their behavior merits her annoyance. This is especially true in her dealing with Jimmy, who finds himself maturing under her tough yet gentle guidance. Arguing with Jane’s decisions is to court disaster. The author makes a nice point of this on the sole occasion when Jane beards a Mafia overlord in his well-guarded den. There is no question in his mind that whoever she is, he prefers to avoid her.

When Jane returns to her life as a surgeon’s wife, both she and her husband are aware that such dramas are and may always be a part of her life. Her husband is perpetually anxious about her, but he is also aware that nothing will prevent his wife from remaining faithful to the ancient roots of her past.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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