THE WASHINGTON POST – For nearly 40 years, Thomas Perry has been steadily building one of the most impressive bodies of work in contemporary crime fiction.
His 1982 thriller, The Butcher’s Boy, won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America and, decades later, remains a notable debut. Perry’s latest, Eddie’s Boy, circles back to that early masterpiece, bringing a long-gestating narrative to an elegant and satisfying conclusion.
Eddie’s Boy is the third sequel to The Butcher’s Boy, after Sleeping Dogs and The Informant, and everything that happens in this book proceeds directly from the events of that first novel.
The title character is a man who calls himself Michael Schaeffer. Orphaned in adolescence, he was raised by Eddie Mastrewski, a Pittsburgh butcher who was also an accomplished – and much sought after – hit man.
Trained from an early age in both professions, “Michael” became a perfect – and perfectly remorseless – killing machine, lending his peculiar talents to anyone willing to pay.
Things changed permanently when a conflict with a mafia boss escalated into an all-out war. (The body counts in these books tend to be astronomical.) The war ended when Michael successfully framed the Mafioso for a murder he did not commit, sending him to federal prison for life.
Michael then abandoned his profession and left the country, heading for England and a life of permanent, hopefully peaceful, exile.
That, of course, is not how things played out.
Michael’s war with the mafia left him with a price on his head and a permanent target on his back. Each sequel to The Butcher’s Boy thus begins with an identical premise: A figure out of Michael’s violent past appears, disrupting his quiet existence and forcing him to resurrect his dormant – but still lethal – skills.
The opening sentence of Eddie’s Boy sets the stage for what will follow: “Michael Schaeffer had not killed anyone in years, and he was enraged at the fact that he’d had to do it again tonight.”
In this iteration, Michael is now in his 60’s and married to a landed English noblewoman.
But events thousands of miles away – directly connected to his long-ago conflict with the mafia – are unfolding, and some unknown but powerful person has decided that Michael must be eliminated.
For the third time, he abandons his ordered life to go on the offensive. With the occasional assistance of Elizabeth Waring, a Justice Department official who has served both as his nemesis and reluctant helper throughout the series, he must identify, locate and “neutralise” the anonymous forces ranged against him. This (presumably) final test of his survival skills will take him from England to Australia and then back to America, to the small Pennsylvania town where he learned to become a killer.
The story, and Michael’s attempts to free himself from the consequences of his past, comes to an end on a farm outside of Saratoga Springs, where the climactic events of The Butcher’s Boy took place decades before.
One of Perry’s unique talents is his ability to tell what is essentially the same story over and over again, while continually finding ways to make it fresh and absorbing. This is true not only of the Butcher’s Boy series, but of his popular Jane Whitefield novels. (Jane, for those not familiar with her, is a Native American “guide” who helps people in troubled circumstances disappear, allowing them to build new lives with new identities. Each of the eight Whitefield novels deploys this scenario, but each one has a distinctive, handcrafted feel. Perry clearly thrives on this sort of narrative challenge.)
Although similar in kind, Eddie’s Boy differs from its predecessors in one crucial respect: the intensity of its focus on Michael’s past.
As Michael pursues his pursuers, moving steadily from one hazard to the next, scenes and images from years before continue to surface, creating a cumulative portrait of a powerfully twisted relationship that would have lethal consequences. Among the most disturbing scenes are those in which he receives his training in the fine art of murder.
Over time, we watch as he learns the various ways in which human beings can do each other harm.
Eddie will eventually die, violently and alone, but Michael will carry his lessons and legacy far into the future. Perry is not a particularly colourful or flamboyant stylist. His prose is lean, clean and typically understated. Its precise, level tone and attention to detail lend his narratives a force and immediacy that compel our attention. If he has ever written a bad, dull or disappointing book, I haven’t seen it.
This dark but illuminating return to his fictional roots is Perry at his representative best. It rarely gets better than that.