Thomas Perry is one of relatively few crime novelists to hold a PhD in literature. But, as the saying goes, it hasn’t hurt his writing any. He wrote for television for some years and was 35 when he published “The Butcher’s Boy,” in 1982. It won the Edgar Award for the year’s best first novel.
“The Burglar” is his 26th novel. If you haven’t read Perry, his new book, “The Burglar,” is a good place to start. It’s a fast-paced, twisty morality tale with a complicated heroine at its center.
We first glimpse 24-year-old Elle Stowell as she jogs through the exclusive Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sporting a Yale T-shirt and expensive running shoes, she easily could pass as a resident of one of the mansions on her route. In fact, she’s a burglar looking to score.
Elle’s career in crime began early. Orphaned young, she lived with her penniless grandmother and sometimes stole food when there was none in the house. Her grandmother died when Elle was 14 and she did what she had to do. “Elle knew that a burglar was a sorry, selfish thing to be, but she had gotten started at a time when she was too young to be on her own and had to eat.” She even went to college to enhance her talents, taking “enough night classes in locksmithing electronics, and other skills to wonder if the community colleges were mostly packed by studious thieves.”
Elle has never been arrested and, larceny aside, has a fairly normal life. She tells people she lives on an inheritance from her grandmother — which, in a way, is true. She hangs out with friends in a Hollywood bar and has boyfriends from time to time. In this story, she’s tempted by one handsome suitor — but is he out to woo, arrest or kill her?
The opening burglary presents a special problem for Elle. Soon after breaking in, she discovers the house is far from empty. In the master bedroom, a horrific scene awaits her: The bodies of a man and two women, all naked, all shot through the head, lie atop the bed. The man, we learn, was a prominent art dealer. Both women were in their 30s, were married to rich men and were art collectors.
A camera faces the bed. Fearful that her image may have been captured, Elle removes its memory card. At home, she plays it and sees the killer as he fires the fatal shots. The next night, unwisely moved by curiosity, Elle drives past the murder scene, only to be pursued by a car. She escapes but fears that her pursuers, whether they’re the killers or the police, know her identity.
As Elle tries to find a way out, readers will be drawn to this delightful heroine — never mind her thievishness. Perry is a skillful writer who shows deft flourishes throughout: the moon is “a thin crescent like a fingernail clipping,” a man has “perfect teeth, white as a bathtub.” The villains are properly loathsome and the smartly plotted tale will teach at least some readers a good deal about art.
Moralists may balk at Elle’s complicated principles, but others will finish “The Burglar” hoping Perry brings her back again.
Patrick Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries regularly for The Washington Post.
By Thomas Perry
Mysterious. 304 pp. $28