'Nightlife': When a Killer Won't Fit a Profile

Detail from the cover of 'Nightlife' shows a silhouette of a woman.

The nature and notion of identity lies at the heart of Thomas Perry's thriller. hide caption

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Thomas Perry's thriller Nightlife has a woman serial killer, a woman cop and many identity changes. Perry tells Linda Wertheimer that despite the bloody themes of his work, he often has trouble killing off favorite characters.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Thomas Perry has written a new book called Nightlife. This follows a number of very successful thrillers, including award winning story of a hired killer, The Butcher's Boy, and a series of novels about a character named Jane Whitfield, an American-Indian woman who specializes in hiding people who are being pursued, by giving them new identities.

In the new book, Thomas Perry again takes on the question of identity. This time, it's identity theft; again, he's writing about a killer who kills repeatedly. But you've never met anyone like this murderer, in fiction or fact.

Thomas Perry joins us from our studios at NPR West.

Thank you for coming in.

Mr. THOMAS PERRY (Author, Nightlife): Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you've spent quite a bit of time considering identity. What interested you about that?

Mr. PERRY: What I was really doing was trying to figure out what identities really are made of. It isn't really just a question of trying to figure what names should be on those papers and on the driver's license and so on. But what I do in this book is to have two women, each of whom has sort of constructed, or is in the process of constructing, an identity.

The heroine, Catherine Hobbs, who is a police detective in Portland, Oregon, is essentially a woman who has kind of failed at her first try of life. The marriage fell a part. The life fell a part, and she discovered that she has a really ferocious drinking problem. So that in a way that identity that she had built in the usual way becomes nonfunctional. So she begins to construct a life for herself as a police officer, and as a person who doesn't drink, and as a person who is under complete control at all times.

WERTHEIMER: And the murderer, of course, re-does her identity periodically, in fact, fairly rapidly.

Mr. PERRY: Right, yeah.

WERTHEIMER: There's the little paragraph: Nancy Mills didn't go on shopping binges the way Tanya Starling often had and Rachel Sturbridge did once or twice. Nancy still owned all of their new clothes from Aspen, Portland, and San Francisco. And at the moment, her activities were too simple to require a big wardrobe; but still, she liked to look at clothes.

So that's all three of her, that's all the same person.

Mr. PERRY: Right. That's all the same person and she changes these identities very rapidly, and without much preparation in advance.

WERTHEIMER: What is she like?

Mr. PERRY: She's brought up by a mother who went out a lot, and appeared to be doing things which seemed to extremely glamorous, and were a huge contrast to the kind of daily grind of things that young Charlene, which is her real name, had to do. And at the same time, the mother took Charlene to child beauty contests. And she was quite successful at it. She got to be very, very good and won a lot of trophies, and so on.

And what that did was give her a kind of taste of looking good, being a glamorous person who isn't really you, but who gets a lot of praise and a lot of rewards and so on. And at the moment when Charlene is in college, during that first awful winter of her freshman year, she begins to experiment with going out at night with a false name and going out and pretending to be somebody else. Well, all of this stuff seems to come back later on when she's been living with a man for several years one day he just simply decides that she's gotten too old and kicks her out.

Well, at that moment, what she has to do is to build a kind of identity herself. You know, who am I going to be? How am I going to get to live the life that I want to live? And she's really sort of been given the tools for that from the time when she was a child. What this woman is doing is shopping for an identity. And when somebody has discovered that she's dishonest, there's really nothing in her repertoire except killing them.

There's nothing else. There's no way for her to get out of it and go on to the next life.

WERTHEIMER: You're also kind of sending up all of these CSI's and Criminal Minds, and all these kinds of television profiler things, aren't you? I mean, you're...

Mr. PERRY: Yeah...

WERTHEIMER: ...you basically created a character who doesn't, doesn't match anything.

Mr. PERRY: Yes. That is something. I should say I have spent a lot of time writing for television. I did it years ago. But you know, I think we can get to the point where we're too sure that we know exactly what human motivation is. You know, it's true that large numbers of people that we refer to as serial killers do fit a kind of standard profile. But that doesn't mean that everybody who does anything evil is sick in some way, or that there's anything in their backgrounds that causes them to do it.

I mean it's possible to have a character or a person who simply does bad things because they're expedient.

WERTHEIMER: Do you anticipate bringing any of these new characters back? I noticed that some of them you killed and some for them you didn't, as if perhaps they might survive into another book?

Mr. PERRY: Well, I'm not sure. Years ago, I always said that I would never write a series. And you know, of course, what happened was I wrote Vanishing Act, the first of the Jane Whitefield books, and I realized when I finished the book I wasn't finished with Jane. I just sort of begun thinking about her and writing about her, and I wanted to do something else.

And in doing it, I learned a lot of things about series. One is that there's a wonderful aspect to it. And that is that there's not downtime between books. There's no moment when you're kind of wondering around thinking what am I going to write? What's going to be the best thing to do? That's wonderful.

And it also allows you to, when you know you're going to write a series, to begin to think of those books as one single work. In the case of the Jane books, they took about a year to write. And each year Jane would be a year older and her life would have gone on for a year. And she would know the things that she knew in the previous book, or that she learned in the previous book. That's all fun. That's all wonderful stuff.

But one of the problems with it is that it makes you comfortable. And I don't think that a novelist should be comfortable. I don't think that that's a something that induces you to learn how to be a better writer. I haven't killed off some of the characters in this book, not because I necessarily am going to go back to them, but I just sort of, sometimes I just can't bear it.

I just want to leave them, you know, alone in some sort of parallel universe existing. I like them too much. That's all.

WERTHEIMER: You do sound like you like your work.

Mr. PERRY: I love it. And I was smart enough, after a few years, to stop telling people that I was a writer. In that way, what happened was that I didn't have all my friends offering to read what I was writing, and feel that they had to comment on it, make it everybody uncomfortable. So I continued to write without ever telling anybody. And it was one of those secret vices, which I think is a wonderful thing to have.

WERTHEIMER: Thomas Perry's newest book is called Nightlife.

Thanks very much for spending this time with us.

Mr. PERRY: Well, thank you very much for having me.

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