Book Review: THE ABSENCE OF MERCY by John Burley
William Morrow Paperbacks, November 19, 2013
ISBN 978-0-06-222737-9 (trade paperback)
My review: November 13, 2013
Ben Stevenson (47) is a pathologist at Trinity Medical Center. He met his wife Susan (43) in medical school (she’s a family practice physician), and they have been happily married for seventeen years. The couple has two sons, Thomas (16) and Joel (8). Ben and Susan moved from the city Pittsburgh to Wintersville, Ohio when Thomas was two-years-old. Wintersville is a small, safe Midwestern town with a population of five thousand, and Ben is happy to be raising their family here. He enjoys his work at the hospital, and also serves as the town’s medical examiner. But on the night of March 21, 2013, the mutilated body of a teenage boy is found in the woods, and Ben’s sense of security is ripped away.
From the first page of John Burley’s debut psychological suspense stand-alone novel, the narrative voice had this reader’s pulse racing. As a fan of this genre, I had the familiar sense of fear and excitement I get when a talented writer is at the helm. Ben maintains his professional objectivity and skill in the CO (Coroner’s Office). Yet, Ben Stevenson, in comparison to Patricia Cornwell’s pathologist Kay Scarpetta in Cornwell’s debut novel Postmortem, is a family man first and foremost. While Ben clearly is an excellent medical examiner, nothing in his prior experience Wintersville has prepared him for the horror of this case. Ben clearly is terrified that evil literally has hit so close to home, especially as the father of a teenage boy.
“In the case of traumatic deaths, however, it was different. One’s eye is inexorably drawn to the fatal injury—that which has extinguished the flame of life so abruptly. Especially in the case of young people, the autopsy ceases to be about discovering the marks left behind from a life richly experienced, and rather is about bearing witness to the end of a life barely begun. Such was the case here, as Ben moved from one disfiguring injury to the other, each one denoting a blatant disrespect for the life of this young man, and for human life in general. It was a tragedy to behold. He simply wanted to stop, to cover the form in front of him with cloth, to save it from this last final disgrace. Instead, he continued, using practiced and precise descriptive terminology like a shield to defend himself from what was real.”
As a writer, Burley has the advantage of a strong medical background (he is an emergency room physician). The scenes at the coroner’s office and at a hospital are very strong. His prose is vivid and intense. Burley’s portrayal of the Midwestern small town setting its residents rings true. Burley’s characters are captivating. The opening scene of the book terrifies in the depiction of a serial killer stalking and murdering the young teenage boy. Another character who is especially compelling is Chief Sam Garston of the Sherriff’s Department, a large man with presence who is understands the subtleties of criminal cases and who possesses sensitivity in dealing with all parties of a case. Burley possesses a knack for voicing genuine teenage characters without patronizing them. He is adroit with his red herrings. It’s unlikely that the reader will be able to predict the shocking ending. I look forward to John Burley’s next book, and recommend The Absence of Mercy to fans of crime fiction and psychological suspense.