Perry (Blood Money; The Face Changers) serves up a clever entertainment (in the Graham Greene sense of the word) set in the high-stakes insurance world. After a deliberately ambiguous prologue (just why is Ellen Snyder going to an L.A. airport hotel before dawn?), we learn that Ellen, working out of the Pasadena office of a prestigious San Francisco insurance company called McClaren's, recently authorized a 12$- million death benefit payment to a man who turned out to be an imposter. Now both the imposter and Ellen have navished, and McClaren's has called in mysterious operative Max Stillman to investigate the apparent conspiracy to defraud. Stillman oh-so-deftly draws young John Walker, an analyst in the main San Francisco office, into the investigation. Walker cooperates with Stillman because he doesn't believe Ellens's guilty; he's still a little bit in love with her from their training class days, although Ellen's career plans left no room for more than a casual interoffice romance. Casual is the operative word here: a casual remark from Walker to an enigmatic computer hacker named Serena leads to a seriously steamy interlude. And casual is the best way to describe Perry's seemingly effortless method of developing character and building suspense. His style is so assured as to be invisible, seamlessly supplying plot and character information as the chase leads from California to Chicago, Miami and finally a small town in New Hampshire. Though the finale echoes the premise of a particular Dachiell Hammett story, everything else feels as fresh as dawn. (Jan. 16) Forecast: Perry won an Edgar for The Butcher's Boy, and Metzger's Dog was New York Times Notable Book of the Year. This is his finest novel yet and, if sold with enthusiasm, could chart significant numbers. The bold evocative, b&w jacket will help, as will the four-city author tour.