- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

Jane Whitefield is one of the most original and intriguing characters in current crime fiction and we should all be glad she is back, because Thomas Perry needs her.

Without the taciturn, impassive and, if necessary, lethal Ms. Whitefield, Mr. Perry’s work tends to lose much of its zip. When she is not an intrinsic part of his plot, his books sometimes lose their fast pace. With her, they have an impassioned quality, perhaps because Ms. Whitefield is driven by her own sad demons. She has dedicated herself to helping people in trouble disappear, and she is tremendously good at it.

What makes the Whitefield series so readable is that Mr. Perry obviously has done considerable research on the kind of work at which his character excels.

It is fascinating to read how she applies ingenuity to build a new personality for a client while simultaneously cloaking them in psychological protection devices and advice on what to do to avoid being caught and killed.

In Runner (Houghton Mifflin, $26, 448 pages), Ms. Whitefield’s charge is Christine, a pretty and pregnant young woman who is being hunted down by professional killers, hired because her wealthy future father-in-law wants to keep her baby alive for the sole reason of continuing the family line. He is indifferent to the fate of Christine or even his son, the mean-minded wastrel who is the baby’s father. Christine’s problem arises from the fact that she doesn’t have the intelligence to take Ms. Whitefield’s advice on how to avoid risk. She is 21 years old, going on 15, and common sense appears to be the last thing on what there is of her mind.

So re-enter Ms. Whitefield into a dark and violent scene that is not of her making, but which she proceeds to deal with and dispose of in a manner that leaves none of the bad guys alive. It is one of the strengths of the Whitefield character that she operates with minimal fuss, reminiscent of the attitude of classic movie cowboys who did what they had to do and rode on. Ms. Whitefield’s challengers get in her way and they’re dead and she moves on. Mr. Perry has created a unique creature in this woman who has never forgotten or lost sight of her American Indian heritage, which may account for the quality of steel in her personality.

In the workaday world, Ms. Whitefield is the wife of a wealthy surgeon and she makes an earnest effort to play the role of a wife whose work outside the home goes no farther than medical volunteer work. Her husband is aware she is torn between what she is and her genuine affection for him, although her reluctance to marry might have sent up warning signals. The trouble is that her strange and dangerous way of life is what Jane Whitefield cares about most, and from the reader’s standpoint, long live Jane.

•••


Most likely there are few memories more awful than those that haunted the survivors of trench warfare in World War I, and Charles Todd has now written several books about such nightmares. While he has proved his expertise at re-creating grim scenarios, he might now consider exorcising one of the more prominent ghosts.

In A Matter of Justice (Morrow, $24.99, 336 pages), Ian Rutledge, his central character, not only lives with the memory of Hamish, the Highland soldier he shot in the course of the war, but must endure the vengeful voice of the dead man echoing in his mind. Hamish has achieved a stature of his own, even if he does exist only in Rutledge’s head, yet he may be outliving his literary usefulness. In this case, Mr. Todd has put together a clever account of murders that were committed and concealed in a past war, with the consequences of an intricately plotted revenge that stretched over decades.

When Scotland Yard Inspector Rutledge is assigned to the investigation, Hamish becomes not only unnecessary but even a little tiresome, especially since Rutledge’s superior officer is hostile and unreasonably difficult with the already troubled detective.

The disentangling of the plot is carefully and credibly done, and there are even moments when Rutledge seems on the brink of overcoming his previous romantic disappointments and contemplating a relationship with a woman. Yet the bitter voice harping at the back of his mind gives him no peace by night or day, making clear that Rutledge must atone, perhaps with his own death, for the killing of Hamish. It is remarkable and even unlikely that Rutledge can operate as successfully as he does under such pressure in the demanding job of solving crimes.

Perhaps Mr. Todd should consider a variation on the Hamish theme, before it demolishes the promising character of Rutledge. Surely Hamish will never be forgotten, and Rutledge must come to terms with his terrible memory. But the relentless specter seems to be stalking his prey a little too long. Hamish is a justifiably angry ghost seeking vengeance on the man who ended his life.

Yet he has run his course, from a literary standpoint, and at some point, Rutledge must either exorcise him or succumb to that nagging dark presence that can offer no positive impact on his postwar life and in fact imprisons him forever in a terrible past.

Mr. Todd should let Rutledge move on with what is left of his life and gradually allow Hamish to rest in peace.

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

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