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NOVEL

On the Run and on a Roll

DANCE FOR THE DEAD,\o7 By Thomas Perry (Random House: $21; 324 pp.)\f7

April 21, 1996|Dick Lochte | Dick Lochte's last mystery novel, "The Neon Smile," is a new Ivy paperback

"There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose," Henri Matisse once said, "because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted."

Author Thomas Perry must subscribe to that theory. When he created a protagonist for "Vanishing Act," his last suspense novel, he quite literally seemed to have chased every other crime-combating heroine from his mind, no small task considering the sheer number and variety of women fronting mystery series these days. His Jane Whitefield is something quite unique. Tall, raven-haired, blue-eyed, descended from the Native American Seneca tribe, obsessed with her unusual occupation, she is neither sleuth nor spy, lawyer nor cop.

She's no magician either, although she has spent the last 10 of her 32 years making her clients disappear. As she explains it in "Dance For the Dead," her new adventure, "I show people how to go from places where somebody is trying to kill them to other places where nobody is."

Perry established his credentials in the early 1980s with fictions like "The Butcher's Boy" (which won an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America) and "Metzger's Dog," works that combined dimensional characters with shrewd streetwise plotting. These thrillers, splendid as they are, did not quite prepare the reader for the sheer delight of encountering Jane Whitefield or the gracefully fluid style and good, nasty fun of "Vanishing Act."

A book that special, however, poses a problem for an author with a series on his mind. Once the reader is familiar with the wily, ultra-dedicated Jane and the way she operates--the convoluted travel plans, the myriad IDs, the never-ending second guessing of the enemy's reactions--the follow-up, in this case "Dance For the Dead," is less of a stunning surprise.

As if to compensate for this, Perry starts things off with a bang, with Jane fending off homicidal thugs inside the courthouse in downtown L.A. She has kept her 8-year-old client from their clutches on a long cross-country trip. But although she has succeeded in getting him to a hearing involving the dissemination of his family fortune, the final maneuver has resulted in the murder of his lawyer and nanny.

A lesser author might have taken up a whole book with just that plot, but Perry uses it as merely a starting point, the event that forces Jane, guilt-ridden over the deaths, to take on, once again, the man behind the murders. He's a powerful and ruthless ex-lawman named Barraclough with a vast organization and access to just about every corner of our information-packed, computerized world. Jane's new client is a young woman on the run with money stolen from a crooked savings and loan. Barraclough wants the money. And he wants to defeat Jane.

The resulting thriller could serve as a Baedeker for those who want to get away from it all--without a trace. It covers a lot of territory--from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara to Ann Arbor, Mich.; Detroit; Chicago; Toledo and eventually to Buffalo, N.Y., and a final snowy nighttime confrontation in a deserted steel mill.

Along the way there are pauses for descriptions of the passing countryside, a bit of Native American lore and even a deepening romance between Jane and a young doctor in her hometown. But for the most part, "Dance" concentrates on the chase, with a bountiful assortment of twists and turns, deceptions and diversions. One couldn't ask for a more exciting and exhilarating game of hide and seek.

* THOMAS PERRY will speak on the "Mystery Writing in Southern California" panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books today at 10:30 a.m.

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