I have always been drawn to stories of escape; not just simple escapism but actual escape. At the age of ten, I obsessed over World War II prisoner of war literature. I may have been the only sixth-grader in the audience for The Great Escape, John Sturges’ stirring adaptation of Paul Brickhill’s memoir of the break-out from Stalag Luft Three, who sat squinting critically at the screen making an inventory of trivial inaccuracies: The living conditions were worse than the film portrayed; the ambitions of the escape team, more modest. And the POW camp, intended to gather all the allied escape artists in one place, was actually Colditz Castle, a one-time mental institution in the town of Colditz, near Leipzig.
The claustrophobic tunnel digger was not the heroic Pole played by Charles Bronson but Paul Brickhill himself, and unlike Bronson’s Danny, he was ultimately banned from participating in the escape, which may have saved his life.
I’ve seen The Great Escape many times since that rainy afternoon in 1963, first in revival theaters and when it became possible I purchased it on every known format: Betamax, VHS, RCA video disk, DVD, Blu-ray, and finally, the digital download. I watch it to the end whenever I chance upon it, clicking through the channels on my TV. I’ve even rented it on Netflix.
The thing that keeps drawing me back is the way the film expands in the final third, from the airless prison stockades and dark tunnels into the open rolling fields, quaint towns and snow-capped mountains of Bavaria.
Richard Attenborough fleeing across the roofs of a sleepy village; Charles Bronson floating down a placid river to the sea on a stolen rowboat; James Coburn following a French Resistance fighter into the sun-dappled foothills of the Pyrenees, heading for Spain; and of course, most of all, best of all, Steve McQueen tearing across an alpine meadow on a hi-jacked Nazi motorcycle, finally attempting to leap a wall of crossed timbers and barbed wire in an exuberant, gloriously futile bid for freedom. Those images captured everything I longed for as a child.
But why should that be? I was a cheerful, cherubic little boy living a pampered life in a great city. I had a loving mother, a glamorous father, my own dog, my own record player, my own room. And yet I loved to imagine that the six-foot, ornate dark wood-framed mirror hanging in that room was in fact a secret door to – where? Someplace more exciting, more mysterious, more free.
I happily followed the Pevensie children through that wardrobe into Narnia and could have jumped directly into the television every Easter when we watched the annual showing of The Wizard of Oz on CBS. It didn’t matter that all we had was a black-and-white TV.
I provided the color.
Looking back, I realize I was frightened most of the time growing up, afraid of looking foolish or clumsy, cowering at the thought of bullies at school and on my block at home, trying to avoid stern teachers and arrogant camp counselors. The city itself made me nervous. I never explored it until I returned as an adult, after college. I never even visited Greenwich Village until tenth grade when I found a friend who happened to live there. I attended one of the best high schools in the Western Hemisphere, but I was too intimidated to take the most interesting classes Dalton offered. I still regret missing Donald Barr’s Shakespeare seminar and the great Jane Bendetson’s “The Bible as Literature” elective.
The Los Angeles side of my own family frankly terrified me but with good reason: drug addled, bizarrely seductive half-sister, sociopathic step-brother (did he really try to drown me in the swimming pool that day? Or was he just ‘fooling around?’), authentically demonic step-mother (“I would gladly see all of you LAYED OUT DEAD if it meant helping your father IN ANY WAY.”) and of course my brilliant, troubled, phobic, mercurial, unknowable father.
Fear itself is corrosive. My father understood that as well as FDR did, and I knew it, too. That’s why I spent so much time in my early adulthood confronting mean people, flying kamikaze seductions at women far out of my league and surfing waves too big for me. I got defeated, dumped and nearly drowned. I won an argument or two, went on some wild dates, caught some extraordinary waves. But none of that changed anything.
I still wanted to escape — to the Yellow Brick Road with a motley crew of impaired friends, to the city of Helium under the hurtling moons of Barsoom with Dejah Thoris; down the Mississippi on a raft with Nigger Jim. Maybe I just wanted to stake my freehold in the unclaimed territories of the imagination. I’ve always felt more comfortable with stories than with real life, anyway – they’re so much better organized.
My adult reading remains tinged with that longing for other lives and alternate worlds, from Mann’s Zauberberg to Hemingway’s Pamplona, From Michael Chabon’s Sitka, Alaska to (perversely, I know) George Orwell’s Airstrip One.
That path led me through the guilty pleasures of crime fiction to the imaginary upstate New York town of Deganawida and the extraordinary half-Seneca Indian ‘guide’, Jane Whitefield. Author Thomas Perry’s seventh novel featuring Jane – Poison Flower – was released in March.
Perry’s first novel, The Butcher’s Boy, came out in 1982 and won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel a year later. He hasn’t made much of a splash since then, partly because his books have never been made into films. He advanced a theory about why this might be during a 2003 exchange with Roger Birnbaum:
TP: In a way I don’t really think about it much anymore. My first book, The Butcher’s Boy, was in option continuously for 18 years. It was never out of option. There are studios that don’t exist anymore that had these things. At some point every working screenwriter in Hollywood has a bad script for one or another of my books. Which is why they all hate me. So, I don’t know.
RB: I’m not seeing the connection. They write bad scripts and they hate you?
TP: These are people who have written good movies. And they are hired to write a script of one of my books and it just doesn’t work out. It’s partly an obvious problem. Most of my main characters spend most of their time alone. And when they are not alone, whatever they say aloud is a lie. So, it’s confusing and very difficult to make a movie out of that. You have to invent some bogus character who is going to be the interlocutor. That’s one thing. And very often you have to soften the protagonist because he is amoral or something. Or has some other minor drawback.
I’m convinced there’s a different explanation.
Perry’s books resist adaptation for the same reason that many books do: their literary quality is simply not translatable to the medium of film. Thomas Perry writes escapist fiction. I’m sure he’d be amused to hear me accuse him of making literature. And yet, in his small and particular way, that is precisely what he does. The one thing that all the books I take seriously have in common is a feeling in the text of the author’s personality and point of view, his unique slant on the events he’s describing his sensibility.
That ought to be the explanation, at least, since the books move through one extraordinary cinematic set-piece after another. The chase across the roofs in The Face Changers, the escape through deep woods in Shadow Woman where Jane uses every trick from her Seneca heritage to hide her trail, not knowing that a pair of dogs are trampling her cunning diversions guided by her scent alone. When she stumbles into a clearing, exhausted and hopeless, and finds herself face to face with a giant brown bear she turns this final calamity into her salvation. She distracts the huge beast with the last of her food and lets the dogs rush headlong into the bear in an improvised Darwinian ambush that covers her escape. I’d watch that in a movie: relentless pursuit foiled by improvisation and ingenuity.
Of course you know Jane will always win, whether she’s leading a trio of murderous sociopaths through the bowels of a deserted rust-belt factory or ambushing a platoon of killers in a deserted country house in the North Woods. That’s the brown savory crust on the macaroni and cheese of this narrative comfort food, the thing people both love and despise about genre fiction in general: Kenzie and Gennaro, Elvis Cole and Spenser will always figure things out; Bubba Rugowski, Joe Pike and Hawk will always get there in the nick of time.
And somehow, the phrase “nick of time” will always be apposite.
So, yes, Jane will always ferry her charges to safety but this sets her apart from the other heroes and heroines on the thriller shelf. She’s not trying to steal anything or solve anything; she’s just trying to help.
Plus she’s cool. She can run forever and she knows where to get false documents. She can tell you that a second floor apartment is best for fugitives (you can see people coming but still climb down to the street); she can teach you to memorize the escape routes from any town and how to destroy the fingerprints and DNA evidence in a car with a fire extinguisher.
Also, she’s fearless. At one point in the 6th book, Runner, she spins her car 180 degrees and drives straight at her pursuers, running them off the road. “You can’t play chicken like that!” her panicky passenger screams. But her bravado is based on ruthless calculation: They’re running for their lives – the mercenaries in the other car are chasing them for cash, and no one’s going to die for a dollar.
Dance for the Dead, perhaps the best of the books, opens with Jane fighting her way into a Los Angeles Court House with nine-year-old Timothy Phillips so that the boy can prove he’s alive before the sinister financial holding company Hoffen-Bayne can declare him dead and take control of his inherited fortune. After a dramatic scene in the courtroom, the judge asks to see Jane in his chambers. “I hear you’re one of those people who could kill me with a pencil,” he says. Jane answers simply: “If I am, I wouldn’t need a pencil.”
To give a better sense of who Jane is and why I find her so compelling, I’m going to turn over some page space to her and present the revealing final moments of her talk with Judge Kramer.
Wrapping up their post-mortem, Jane says:
“ … I can’t prove any of it. I only saw the police putting handcuffs on four of the men in the courthouse, and there won’t be anything on paper that connects them with Hoffen-Bayne or anybody else. I know I never saw them before, so I can’t have been the one they recognized. They saw Timmy.” She took a step toward the door. “Keep him safe.”
The Judge said, “Then there’s you.” He watched her stop and face him. “Who are you?”
“I mean what’s your interest in this?”
“Dennis Morgan asked me to keep Timmy alive. I did that. We all did that.”
“What are you? A private detective? A bodyguard?”
“I’m a guide.”
“What kind of guide?”
“I show people how to go from places where someone is trying to kill them to other places where nobody is.”
“What sort of pay do you get for that?”
“Sometimes they give me presents. I declare the presents on my income taxes. There’s a line for that.”
“Did somebody give you a present for this job?”
“If you fail, there’s nobody around to be grateful. My clients are dead.” After a second she added, “I don‘t take money from kids, even rich kids.”
“Have you served in your capacity as ‘guide’ for Dennis Morgan before?”
“Never met him until he called. He was a friend of a friend.”
“You – all three of you – went into this knowing that whoever was near that little boy might be murdered.”
She looked at him as though she were trying to decide whether he was intelligent or not. Finally, she said, “An innocent little boy is going to die. You’re either somebody who will help him or somebody who won’t. For the rest of your life you’ll be somebody who did help him or somebody who didn’t.”
So that’s Jane Whitefield: one-woman witness-protection agency. As she concludes about Pete Hatcher, a client on the run from mobsters who own the gambling casino where he works, “The way he would defeat his enemies was to outlast them. While they were staring at computer screens or loitering late at night in airport baggage areas or sitting in cars outside hotels at check-out time studying each male who came out the door, he had to be somewhere, living a normal, reasonably contented life. If he could do that for long enough, they would give up.” (Shadow Woman)
Perry weaves Jane’s Indian heritage into the fabric of every story, as in this moment as she is about to go to the aid of a small orphan boy in mortal danger from criminal financial predators trying to steal his inherited fortune. Jane has just received a ‘present’ from a previous client named Rhonda Eckerly – Jane never accepts formal payment for her work. The two hundred thousand dollars will come in handy for the task ahead:
As she locked her door and took a last look at her house, she thought about the old days, when Senecas went out regularly to raid the tribes in the south and west in parties as small as three or four warriors. After a fight they would run back along the trail through the great forest, sometimes not stopping for two days and nights.
When they made it back to Nundawaonoga, they would approach their village and give a special shout to the people to tell them what it was they would be celebrating. (Dance for the Dead)
As Perry said in an interview several years ago,
…one of the things that having a Seneca as my heroine does is give me a way to show the area in several dimensions: the modern place we see, the historical place where armies clashed in deep forests, the mythical place, where deities and supernatural creatures live. The roads in that part of the country are simply Iroquois trails paved over, or short-cuts made by the British Army to connect their forts.
Despite her Ivy League education and upper middle class lifestyle, Jane remains a Long House Seneca at heart. But she is caught between two worlds and the binary nature of reality figures prominently in Seneca lore, as well. Two brothers, Hawenneyu the creator and Hanegoategeh the destroyer, struggle over the world, fighting each other at every turn:
Hawenneyu makes a little boy. Hanegoategeh gives him a virus. Hawenneyu strengthens his body to give him immunity, and Hanegoategeh makes the virus mutate and sends the boy off to kill eighty thousand people. Hawenneyu has made sure that one of the eighty thousand is a man who would have started a war and killed eighty million. (Blood Money)
Jane is exigent and unsentimental, ruthlessly clear in her judgments, sharply articulate in expressing them … rather like Perry himself. The astringent perceptions speckle the books and touch you as you read like summer rain on your face. Of a silent woman in a county lock-up he remarks, “She never spoke to anyone, having long ago lost interest in what other people gained from listening, and having gotten used to whatever they expelled by talking.” (Dance for the Dead) Hiding out at the University of Michigan, the 28-year-old guide makes this unflinching assessment of herself: “There were places where she could still pass as a college girl, but college was not one of them.” (Dance for the Dead) Of her own husband, a successful surgeon, she notes, “Carey was very good at constructing fair, logical solutions to other people’s problems.” (The Face Changers) Of the three urban gang-bangers she entices to help her follow an escaping villain, Jane thinks, “The part about killing seemed to have raised their level of interest considerably. She had forgotten for a moment about seventeen year old boys. There had never been a moment in human history when anybody hadn’t been able to recruit enough of them for a war.” (Dance for the Dead)
In Poison Flower, Jane Whitefield confronts some of the logical consequences of her Quixotic profession: these windmills fight back. Every person she has rescued over the years has someone still hunting for them, and these hunters are ruthless persistent criminals, organized or not. Jane has always known she might be captured by one of them and tortured to reveal a location of the victims she’s rescued. Like the Seneca scouts left behind to assure the escape of a raiding party, she has always been willing to sacrifice herself for her tribe.
Poison Flower puts this determination to the test.
Jane helps a man named named James Shelby escape from jail in Los Angeles. Shelby’s sister had found Jane in Deganawida and convinced her that Shelby had been framed for murder. No one else was willing or able to help.
Jane gets the man out of jail but she is shot and captured in the process. Her captors begin what our government calls “enhanced interrogation” (unless some other government is doing it) but stop hastily when they realize Jane has more to offer than the location of a single runner. A little research identifies her as a valuable commodity, and soon she’s on the auction block, with every abusive husband, sociopath and career criminal she ever defeated bidding for the right to extract her secrets.
She escapes – the thugs are more worried about someone stealing her before the auction and make the blunder of underestimating a slim, unarmed, badly wounded woman.
With no identification, no money and no cell-phone, some stolen clothes, a thug’s gun and a pair of bolt cutters that were meant to be used on her own fingers and toes, Jane steals a van and winds up several hundred miles away, at a battered women’s shelter in Las Vegas. She knows the staff there will help a woman in her condition with no questions, judgments or demands.
It’s typical of Jane that she acquires a runner, even as she is on the run herself, protecting one of the women at the shelter from the abusive husband who has tracked her down. The last thing he expects, when he breaks into the place, is a moment like this:
Jane swung her good leg to the floor, stood up beside the bed and aimed her gun at him with both hands. “I know you can probably scare her into saying something she doesn’t want to. Now I want you to take a long, careful look at me. If you think I haven’t fired a gun into a man before, or that I even have a slight reluctance to do it again right now, then go ahead. Try to get to me.”
He does, and she shoots him. But it’s not a fatal shot, and as Jane flees the shelter, the hunted wife begs to join her. The woman knows that as long as her husband is alive he’ll keep trying to find her. This is not a request Jane is constructed to refuse.
Once she connects with Shelby the next concern is getting his sister to safety. She’s the obvious next victim. They’re almost too late in attempting to rescue her, and Jane is captured again. The auction is on. Once more she escapes, aided in part by the razor blade taped to her instep but mainly by the greedy ruthless violence of the bidders themselves. They all bring cash to the auction and the temptation of those sacks of money proves too great. The civilized Sotheby’s façade soon disintegrates into total warfare and Jane spirits Shelby’s sister away in the firefight.
With her charges safe, the task should be complete, but now a lifetime’s worth of very bad people are hunting her, so Jane takes the initiative and goes to war. Of course the outcome is preordained, predictable as the next Godiva chocolate. One might say, as nutritious as the next Godiva chocolate as well, and this installment — more violent and plot-driven than any of the others –makes you hungry for the steamed fish and arugula salad of a more demanding literature. As such it may be the perfect book to ease yourself out of Jane Whitefield’s world into Jane Austen’s, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s.
Of course, Perry isn’t the equal of those women. But he has something in common with them that his colleagues can’t claim: he makes a particular sound, he owns a particular tone of voice, and you keep the compassionate asperity of that voice with you long after the details of chase and pursuit are forgotten.
So if it’s my own stubborn fears that draw me to Jane Whitefield, the question persists: where do those fears come from? That’s what I’ve been wondering since I finished Poison Flower.
It might be genetic – my father was a quivering mass of phobias: narrow spaces, open spaces, enclosed spaces … space in general terrified him. In his later years he refused to fly because of a toxic Long Island iced tea of debilitating terrors: agoraphobia, claustrophobia, vertigo – too anxious to fly without a stiff drink and too shy to ask for one. That’s the “Nature” side of the debate; on the Nurture side we have the fact of his leaving my mother when I was six months old. Of course I was too young to register his absence, but reliable sources tell me that my mother was a broken-hearted unstable mess for more than a year after his departure. That could throw a good scare into the average toddler. And that’s the main reason I didn’t leave for California when I got the offer of agency representation and a career writing television sitcoms. My son Nick was nine years old and teetering a little at that point. His father lighting out for the territories would have knocked him over decisively.
So I didn’t follow the fantasy and I didn’t escape my life. I stayed home and raised my kids instead. I may have settled the nature-nurture debate, at least within my own family, since both kids are cheerfully indomitable and fearless. Tellingly. Nick has never shown the slightest interest in works of fantasy. He prefers history; he reads Robert A. Caro, not Robert A. Heinlein, and his “Glory Road” was I-95 South. He’s living in Washington D.C. now, working for the World Wildlife Fund.
He loves The Great Escape though, especially that iconic image of Steve McQueen in flight, leaping for freedom, knowing he’s going to land defeated in a tangle of barbed wire and eternally not giving a shit. And perhaps it’s just because of him and his sister Caity, fighting on the barricades of bureaucracy struggling to help the infected and the afflicted in the halfway houses of Boston, that I have found a rare contentment on this tiny island thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts. I don’t require the skill and ingenuity of a Jane Whitefield, I no longer yearn to vanish, jump the boat and drive off into a new life.
But I still love Jane Whitefield, and I still feel the delinquent thrill when a new book of her adventures comes out. Like many of her old clients, settled in their new lives, far from danger or pursuit, I might not need Jane Whitefield any more. But it’s nice to know she’s there.
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, where he has been a contributor and contest winner, his work has appeared at Salon.com and The GoodMen Project, as well various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp. He hopes to make it full sweep, with an article in the Tropicana corporate newsletter. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes novels, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.