Best known for his Jane Whitefield thrillers, Edgar Award winner Perry (Blood Money, The Butcher's Boy) has created two equally compelling characters in his latest outing. John Walker, a 24-year-old data analyst at an old-line San Francisco insurance firm, is the kind of numbers cruncher who adds up the weight of people crowding onto an elevator, with an eye on the posted limit. Max Stillman, a fraud investigator who taps Walker as his protégé, is more of a savvy veteran. He helps the neophyte loosen up, introducing him to what he calls the "old-fashioned kind" of mai tai. "Walker tasted his," Perry writes, "and guessed that 'old-fashioned kind' must mean that the quantity of rum was up to the standard in force when driving drunk was still legal in Los Angeles."
Perry, too, is a deft mixologist: The hardboiled dialogue, quirky characters and careful pacing deliver some chilling fun. He takes a single case of swindling and skillfully spins from it a labyrinthine tale of murder, conspiracy and romance. Insurance fraud was at the heart of James M. Cain's classic '40s murder mystery (later a movie) Double Indemnity. Perry's Death Benefits is a worthy successor. (Random House, $24.95)