- - Friday, May 11, 2012

By Owen Laukkanen
Putnam, $25.95 384 pages

By Thomas Perry
Mysterious Press, $24 288 pages

It started out as a civilized sort of crime. A kidnapping followed by a request for a reasonable amount of ransom and the return of the undamaged victim. That was how it started out. Careful, conscientious and professional, neatly dividing up what was called the “finder’s fee” - a mere $60,000 from a man who could have afforded to pay millions. Putting aside $20,000 for expenses, that left $10,000 each for the team of four. So they sat down and considered whether to choose someone in Minnesota as their next hit. So far they’d had a profitable and peaceful autumn.

What this smooth piece of suspense fiction proceeds to prove is that while crime will pay, the price is raised by human frailty. Predictably, the team gets greedy, and that is the moral, if so it can be called, of Owen Laukkanen’s slickly told tale.

In “The Professionals,” his characters are painfully realistic - “three kids with three useless degrees” as one of them puts it, backed up by Mouse, a computer expert who is “a hacker at heart.”

They all need money, and their degrees aren’t paving the way to lucrative careers the way they were supposed to. So they consider crime. Deciding against robbing banks as too dangerous, kidnapping is their choice. It seems safest as long as a high-visibility billionaire isn’t the target. As Pender, leader of the group, puts it, “Get a junior VP, at a Fortune 500 company, tell his wife to hand over a hundred grand in the next twenty-four hours, and she’ll do it without thinking. It’s an inconvenience at those stakes, not a crime. You make the score and hit the next city down the road.”

His girlfriend, Marie, is a little doubtful but concedes, “If we pulled one job like you said, we walk away with a hundred grand, like $25,000 each. That’s not a bad summer project. Let’s do it. Just once. To see if we can.”

Therein lies the poison in the apple. They do it, and they can, and they are encouraged in their perception of themselves as clever professional criminals.

Of course there are pitfalls, like victims who are suspicious of why they haven’t been asked for more money and, even worse, call the police. But disaster strikes when the “professionals” accidentally kidnap someone with organized crime connections and real violence creeps into their crisply tailored caper. Violence leads to death, and one of the team is enough of a bully to be a killer. The once cheerfully confident young kidnappers find themselves in the sights of law enforcement in the shape of state investigators Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere, a young FBI agent.

The Stevens-Windermere duo, an engaging team who may be expected to show up in Mr. Laukkanen’s next book, have a certain amount of compassion for the blundering kidnappers, who are by now scrambling around the countryside confronting the kind of professional criminals who carry guns and have no principles at all. Crime is what these folks do for a living, and they have no patience with those who don’t take it seriously.

Mr. Laukkanen has written a first-rate thriller. Its characters ring true, and to read about them is to be fascinated and exasperated by their struggles to get out of their playpen of self-esteem. Which of course they don’t.

Jane Whitefield is perhaps one of the most intriguing characters in literary crime. A woman whose ancestry is steeped in Seneca Indian lore, she makes a most unusual living by helping people literally disappear into another personality. She is very good at it and quite relentless in her approach to her world. Killing the bad guys is more often than not part of Jane’s world, and she is good at that, too.

In this chapter of her life, she has emerged from a somewhat uneasy retirement as the wife of a wealthy surgeon to rescue a man unjustly accused of killing his wife. She aids in his escape from prison and finds herself a captive of thugs employed by the real killer of the wife.

She undergoes savage torture which makes “Poison Flower” difficult reading. Thomas Perry is nothing if not realistic in his portrayal of cruelty, and the prolonged sufferings of Jane darken the mood of the book without contributing anything to the plot. Readers may be grateful that they are spared the details of the plan to put Jane up for a multimillion-dollar “auction” at which those she has angered most pay to watch her die in agony.

When Jane escapes and embarks on one of her harrowing cross-country journeys as part of rescuing an abused wife as well as Shelby, the man accused of killing his wife, she is at her best. It is riveting to read how meticulously she makes plans, copes with her own pain and smooths the path to safety for her terrified companions. It is also especially interesting to track her recollections of her Seneca ancestry and her ultimate reliance on another kind of civilization. And Jane’s vengeance is formidable, as her tormentors discover. Even when she is planning to kill, she is organized to the point that she can catch a good night’s sleep and wake up shooting.

Jane Whitefield is one of a kind and is even married to a man of infinite patience who treasures what he has and is aware there is nothing he can do to stop her following the demands of her strange and dangerous lifestyle. Meantime, it’s comforting for readers to know she’s there.

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

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