A plane, a bird - superwoman!

BLOOD MONEY By Thomas Perry Random House 351 pp., $24.95

When a mob accountant with a photographic memory, in Thomas Perry's "Blood Money," is presumed murdered, concern ripples through the underworld. Bernie "the Elephant" Lupus is no ordinary money man; his mind holds hundreds of passwords to secret bank accounts, hiding fortunes his employers can only guess at.

When it becomes clear that Bernie's brain is worth $10 billion, the Mafia mobilizes, searching for anyone who might have gotten the account numbers before his demise. This is bad news for Bernie's 18-year-old housekeeper, a troubled but scrappy youth named Rita.

Enter Jane Whitefield, contented wife and semiretired hider of people. Abandoning her pastoral life in Amherst, Mass., Jane goes on the run with Rita to help her build a new life, safe from the unpleasant fate reserved for those who defy La Cosa Nostra.

At times, "Blood Money" reads like a meditation on identity. Perry has a powerful ability to describe the various ways human beings recognize and remember each other, and he uses it to make the hunt and chase scenes of "Blood Money" into engrossing cascades of deception and detection. His exceedingly clear and elegant writing renders the chase vividly, without turning tension into melodrama.

But as enjoyable as it is, "Blood Money" is sometimes overwhelmed by the strength of its main character. In one particular scene, Whitefield makes a series of observations and leaps of logic that are absurdly shrewd and useful, and then reacts to them in an utterly level-headed and effective way. This would be fine, except that this sort of thing happens throughout the book. Jane isn't just amazing, she's unearthly. At times, the reader feels sorry that the only thing she's going up against is a battalion of heavily armed underworld goons.

Those caveats aside, clean writing and expert pacing make "Blood Money" an intense, entertaining read.

*James Norton is on the staff of the Monitor's Electronic Edition, csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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