One of the debut novels found in many Bouchercon swag bags this year was The Absence of Mercy by John Burley. This stand-alone novel is a tightly constructed serial killer story, as well as a portrait of a small town besieged. Both of these constructs are filtered through the views of one family and prove that sometimes the truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
After a chilling opening section in which the first murder occurs, Burley spends some time showing the reader inside this fairly standard family who will act as the lens through which many future events are seen. Readers see spousal fights, discipline techniques, teenage rebellion, and loving moments. There is one particularly tender moment where a parent tries to explain larger theoretical concepts, such as Heaven, to a young child. All of these are moments that most readers will easily relate to.
The Stevenson household consists of Ben Stevenson, the father and town medical examiner, his wife Susan, and two boys – Thomas and younger brother Joel. Since Ben’s job requires him to witness first-hand the brutality with which this killer acts, he begins to worry for his family’s safety. When a teenage classmate of his older son is attacked, the Stevenson’s are forced to admit that the threat is very real and very serious.
John Burley graduated from medical school and current works as an emergency medicine physician, so it will not surprise readers that the book contains extensive amounts of medical detail. Along with the in-depth autopsy scenes, there is also discussion of medical issues involving a coma patient. Since Burley’s wife is also a doctor and has knowledge of psychiatry, he is also able to mine the depths of antisocial personality disorder to further enrich the story.
One victim, the teenage classmate of Thomas, actually survives her attack and this allows Burley to show readers the struggles involved with the recovery process and assimilation back into society after such traumatic events. It is all of these details which bring this town and its citizens to life for the reader. It is impossible not to begin to care about them and that is exactly why the twists later in the narrative toy with the readers emotions.
The Absence of Mercy is a book that refuses to ask the easy questions and never shies away from the difficult answers. John Burley combines the slower unraveling associated with more literary novels with the adrenaline kick needed for a good thriller to create a story that readers will consume quickly and remember forever. No doubt, those same readers will be looking to experience his next book as soon as it is available.
Disclaimer: An e-galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.