January 30, 2008

Review of Vanishing Act

In 2006 I reported on The Face-Changers, the fifth book in the Jane Whitefield series. Now I've read the first book in the series.

Vanishing ActFrom Publishers Weekly

Perry's sixth novel (after Sleeping Dogs) is a taut thriller that at times reads like an extended, though flawed, character study of its heroine. Jane Whitefield, half-white, half-Indian member of the Seneca Wolf clan, helps people disappear-people like Rhonda Eckerly, fleeing her abusive husband, or Harry Kemple, hoping to stay alive after witnessing a gangland shooting. Like a one-woman witness protection program, Jane has helped both vanish by giving them new identities and new starts at life. Now an alleged new victim has invaded Jane's upstate New York house: John Felker claims that he's a cop-turned-accountant, is being framed as an embezzler and has a contract out on his life. Almost immediately, the men chasing Felker appear, and Jane leads him farther upstate, to a Canadian Indian reservation where he can build a new life. Jane is an original and fascinating creation. Like Andrew Vachss's series hero, Burke, she operates outside the law, but with a particular slant born of her distinct character and Seneca heritage. Perry tells her story in a trim and brisk manner, moreover, with plenty of action and suspense.
Some fan comments:An Exciting New Heroine, July 7, 1998
By Robert Derenthal "bucherwurm" (California United States)

It's a curious fact that more and more male authors have a strong female as protagonist. This leads one to hope that wimpy women who twist their ankles whenever running will eventually disappear from the literary scene. Jane's a great lady and fortunately Mr. Perry has seen fit to build a series around her.

The "hunt" scene in the latter half of the book is outstanding. Great thriller. Literate plot. Buy it today.

Compelling, textured thriller in Adirondacks, December 3, 2005
By W. Johnson "?no - who?" (NYC)

While learning some interesting facts ("Adirondacks" is Iroquois for "bark-eaters," a derogatory term for ineffective hunters, and George Washington ordered assorted massacres of Indian villages), I found this novel consistently engaging. The reviews suggesting the heroine's "gullibility" forget the difference between reading a novel and living an experience. Perry isn't interested in tricking his readers, but inviting them to see and experience the world as his heroine does. All in all, she's quicker to figure out the shape of a complex story than that reviewer would have been, and this novel's merits don't depend on "figuring it out" anyway. If a mythic heroine can be credible, this one is.

People finding new identities, July 11, 2002
By Fred Camfield (Vicksburg, MS USA)

The novel introduces Jane Whitefield when she switches places with another woman and beats the daylights out of a sleazy bounty hunter who thinks he is kidnapping a runaway wife. It illustrates how people can completely disappear and start life over as a new person. The story digresses a lot to discuss American Indian lore, and that can be distracting. One gets the impression that the author is trying to show off his knowledge of the subject.
Comment:  Some thoughts on Vanishing Act:

  • Every reviewer seems to have said Jane is half Seneca. Maybe so, but she thinks of herself as a full-fledged member of the Seneca tribe. This may reflect the fact that Indians don't necessarily distinguish themselves by "blood." If her people accept her, she's Seneca regardless of how much Indian blood she has.

  • One reader compared Vanishing Act to the Leaphorn/Chee novels. Except for the use of Native lore, no. Hillerman's characters live in a Native world; they are Native, as far as I can tell. In contrast, the Native lore is uneven in Vanishing Act. Sometimes it seems integrated into Jane's worldview, but sometimes it seems grafted on--i.e., added gratuitously for color.

  • Example:  In the early part of the novel, Jane is driving along a New York country road. She thinks to herself how her Seneca people used to run along the same track. That's extraneous information that doesn't contribute directly to the story. Later, when she's running across the same countryside, she doesn't think about how her people used to run through the same territory. The mention of the runners should've occurred at this point, not the previous point.

    But near the end of the novel, rock formations remind Jane of mythic monsters as she canoes along a lake. A dead person gives her a key insight in a dream. These are examples of Native lore integrated into her character and the story.

  • I didn't find Vanishing Act predictable or boring, even though I guessed the "victim" wasn't what he seemed. What I did find was that it was too linear and unrealistic at times. For instance, rather than fleeing up or down that country road, she decides to run eight miles cross-country. Wouldn't you know it? The criminals guess her plan and are waiting 200 yards away when she emerges.

  • Or...when she pursues the villain, he travels deep into the Adirondacks and she guesses exactly where he's going. If he'd done something less predictable (to her), she never would've found him. And we wouldn't have had that exciting ending.

    The best native mysteries I've read (so far) include Tony Hillerman's Hunting Badger and The Face-Changers. Vanishing Act isn't quite up to their level, but it's good. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

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