Blood Money

by Thomas Perry

Published by Random House

351 pages, 2000

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Now You See It...

Reviewed by Frederick Zackel


How would you go about donating $14.3 billion to charity without anybody, especially not the money's owners -- members of the dozen largest organized crime families in America -- noticing? That's the daunting task for Jane Whitefield, a Native American "guide" and author Thomas Perry's most successful series character, in the fine new thriller Blood Money.

Poor Jane. After four previous adventures (beginning with Vanishing Act in 1995), this "woman who could make people disappear" had hoped to quit saving folks who are in desperate flight from trouble and settle into wedded bliss in upstate New York with her surgeon husband, Carey McKinnon. But then 18-year-old Rita Shelford appears out of nowhere, asking Jane to help both her and "a nice old man" stay clear of the mob.

"From a distance," Perry writes, "[Rita] looked about fourteen: the thin, stringy blond hair that kept getting in her eyes; the narrow hips and bony chest; the clothes she wore that were a little too tight and too short, but made Jane wonder about her mother rather than about her."

In fact, Rita's mother is doing prison time on drug charges. The girl has had to make it on her own, mostly by cleaning hotel rooms in Florida. Recently, however, Rita had been performing housekeeping duties for a guy in the Florida Keys known as Bernie "the Elephant" Lupus. It seems that Bernie earned his nickname for his photographic memory. Over the past 50-odd years, and under heavy protection, he has quietly been keeping track of the ill-gotten gains (and the compounded interest those monies have earned) of the biggest families in the American Mafia.

Bernie the Elephant is a great character. He fell in with the mob after doing a favor for a friend in trouble. "But," he explains, "it wasn't over. You do a favor [for the mob], it doesn't make you paid up. It just proves you can do it." His employers soon found Bernie's special talents indispensable. He doesn't just "remember" what happened 30, 40, even 50 years before; he can "see" what happened, every detail.

For the time being, the mob thinks that Bernie is dead, the shooting victim of one family's vendetta. And he prefers to remain deceased in their eyes. He's ready to get out of the "business," if possible. But precisely how long he can maintain this subterfuge is a question that frightens him. He needs Jane Whitefield's assistance in vanishing -- with Rita -- before his longtime employers start asking too many questions. He tells Jane:

"I know those guys. I know how they think. Nothing is ever over. If somebody killed me, then they must have figured out in advance how to get the money I was holding. If the killers weren't that smart, then I must have left something around that would help the families get their money. If I didn't, then I must have told somebody where it was. If I didn't do that, then I must have slipped up once, or said something, or done something that somebody saw that will lead them to it. Eventually, they'll want to talk to everybody -- even the little girl who cleaned my house."

After looking into the situation on her own, Jane agrees to help. But on one condition: that Bernie "take all of [the mob's] money and donate it to charities."

After winning Bernie's compliance, Jane enlists the aid of Henry Ziegler, CPA, a man as shadowy and mysterious as Jane herself. His clients are Old Money, and Ziegler doesn't just handle their fortunes -- he's learned how to "use" the money in quiet ways to help his clients skirt the "visible" and get what they want done. That's precisely what Jane needs him to do with the funds that Bernie intends to raid from secret mob accounts. But Ziegler is clear about just how challenging it will be to give away such tremendous sums. "There are roughly forty thousand foundations in the country right now -- some for charity, some for art, science, and so on," Ziegler explains. "Ten billion dollars is what all of them put together give away in a year. No matter what we do, this is going to hit the papers -- front page."

Henry Ziegler provides Blood Money with a very interesting spin on money laundering. No longer do we read about bad guys hiding dirty dough. Now it's good guys practicing an extreme form of largesse. Still, these sections of the book slow the story's action. Watching money being laundered is initially fascinating, but over time it can wear one down. Writing checks hour after hour doesn't have the same panache as machine-gunning a horde of rampaging Nazis. Imagine Indiana Jones as an accountant; we prefer seeing him prowling through ancient ruins, not ancient tax returns.

Perry does his best to beef up these parts of his novel with scenes featuring wiseguys. Organized crime bosses get a hint that skullduggery surrounds Bernie's death; they meet to formulate strategies; they distrust each other (for all the right reasons); and they go after each other. Even more dangerously, they begin to stalk Jane herself. Yet these sections are, at best, only partially successful in maintaining the story's suspense.

The mob, as a cohesive and malevolent force, has provided ample grist for storytellers over the years, and tales built around it continue to reward. But, in truth, everyone knows that the American Mafia has been rendered essentially ineffective by modern law-enforcement agencies and competing criminal organizations. Many of its members are behind bars. Despite what the movies or The Sopranos may suggest, the mob has been deconstructed and now lives mostly in the stereotypical images we have of it. By working with those same images, Perry -- no matter how good a wordsmith he is or how hard he tries, no matter how much mob paranoia and bloodletting he injects into Blood Money to sustain its dramatic tension -- only winds up reminding us of how tired, predictable and easily exhausted modern wiseguy stereotypes can be.

Fortunately, the author has Jane Whitefield to fall back on as his yarn's moral center. Intelligent, cunning and capable of moving about with a shadow's ease, she's part Seneca and fully resourceful. In an emergency, Jane can break into hotel rooms like an expert burglar. She has the deductive skills of a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. (As she reasons at one point, "Everybody likes to have new clothes, but nobody has nothing but new clothes unless he couldn't take anything at all when he left home.") She can even buy a good used car at an auto auction, as we discover in Blood Money.

Readers who've kept up with Jane's escapades over the last five years will be interested to find a bit more personal information about the close-mouthed "guide" in this new novel. We learn, for instance, about how Jane's mother helped her to develop her skills at making people disappear. "She had also been a fraud," Perry writes of Jane's parent. "She had decided at the age of twenty -- or twenty-two, as Jane had corrected her after her death -- who she wanted most in the world to be, and then spent the rest of her life impersonating that woman." I hope this means that Perry will devote space in forthcoming stories to fleshing out the character of Mrs. Henry Whitefield. (Perhaps next time we'll even learn her first name.)

As a stylist, Southern California novelist Perry excels at creating vivid analogies. Partway through the book, he explores the thoughts of a mob boss who is gazing out at a half-dozen of his counterparts: "They all looked at him like dogs that had smelled rabbit and then heard the click of the clasp as the chain was snapped onto their collars." Later, Perry tells how those same bosses view their pursuit of Jane, Bernie and Rita just as they would "a card game where the dealer is a little too good. You don't know he's dealing from the bottom, because you didn't see it, but you could tell he could if he wanted to. So if he's not, why isn't he?"

Although Jane leads the mob on a merry chase through these pages, the mooks do eventually close in on her band of philanthropists. There is bloodshed and violent death ... and a most satisfying ending.

It's only regrettable that, in order to sustain the thriller pace of his latest work, Perry has kept short any further exposition of Jane's heritage. In her earlier outings (especially in Vanishing Act), the contemporary plot was always enriched with references to Native American lore. We get little of that here, although at two separate points Jane does experience an Indian-like dream that both advances the plot and creates suspense by suggesting -- if not foretelling -- future action.

Years ago, I asked a British gentleman how his day had gone. He slapped his leg and crowed, "Absolutely standard!" Unlike many people, he was more than happy to celebrate the ordinary. Thomas Perry's Blood Money is absolutely standard, and that consistency is likewise worth celebrating. | May 2000


Frederick Zackel is a contributing editor of January Magazine.