Elle Stowell is a burglar, from a family of burglars. She’s tiny (which is convenient if you’re trying to hide, or get through a small window) and has an ethics of her own: do no damage, and get out quickly. She’s lithe and used to making important decisions, such as how long she should spend trying to crack a safe. She knows that her profession is a pretty sorry thing to be. She also has charming views about men, which Perry compresses into a few sentences I’d like to see written in beautiful calligraphy and given to all men at an early age. Perry doesn’t waste time, however, setting up his characters: he gets right to them. And Elle’s knowledge is applied science, with a willingness to restart the experiment. Except this time. She’s just broken into a house to find that there are three dead in the master bedroom, two beautiful women and a handsome man. They have been assassinated by someone who can kill three people in a matter of seconds. She removes a camera from the room, and gets away quickly. All of this scene setting, back story, and ethical sense I mentioned a few sentences ago is sketched in the first chapter. She has friends who are also burglars, and a succession of young men.
As so often with masters of crime fiction, Perry’s plotting is tight, but anything that looks otiose will come back later and turn out to be a key to where the novel is going. This is not a twist, but something larger, drafted in plotters’ heaven. For example, the bar at which other burglars meet is called Serendipity–but the only neon lights working are just the four last letters. The locals call it ‘The Pity’. That’s a warning: she is about to spend a lot of time evading killers, with less or more success.
Elle has a fence who deals fairly with her, but he–of course–can’t help her defend herself from less cultured thieves. So we get a description of how burglars convert things to cash. I pause here because–as in earlier chapters–Perry offers us a whole life and its rules. He also gives Elle a lot of smarts as she deals with fences. Tacitly, the life skims along a surface of danger, and depends upon Elle getting things right the first time. Her close friends, themselves burglars, are reliable, so Elle asks her best friend to leave with her and have a long vacation–having first checked for (and found) transponders attached to her car. But then there are footprints and a burglary in her own flat. Time to leave town. We are about a third into the novel, with a licence to worry. And we should.
In Perry last book, The Bomb Maker, he used a similar technique. Elle Stowell is more intelligent that the main character there, but he assembles him with clarity and prudence, including allowing for his being a mass murderer. Elle has a much finer sense of human contact, but that didn’t stop me having some difficult moments. Old adage about writing: ‘kill your darlings’. Should you find yourself reading late into the night, don’t say I didn’t warn you.