Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Book Review: 'The Absence of Mercy: A Novel' by John Burley

Review by Susan Grigsby
How far would you go to protect your child?
I've never had any of my own, so am not really in a position to say, but I think I would have done anything to protect my husband and anything for his daughters. Still, I don't really know what I would do to protect a child of my own. I don't know if most parents recognize a limit beyond which they would not go in an offspring's defense.
My parents were not particularly good at parenting, one emotionally distant and the other completely absent, although they probably did try as best they could to protect me. I suspect that I am not the only one to come from a family that could at best be called mildly dysfunctional.

But still, a child. One that you love more than life itself. What would you do to protect that child?
John Burley asks that question in his smart debut novel, The Absence of Mercy.
(Full disclosure: HarperCollins sent me a copy of this book for review, which was accepted with the understanding that I only write about books I like. The fact that this book was free would be expected to influence my reaction in favor of the novel, but bear in mind that it was a dead tree book with like, pages and ink and stuff. To my mind, being a devoted e-book reader, the format offset any favorable influence that the price might have exerted.)
John Burley is a practicing ER physician in Northern California, who went to medical school in North Chicago and completed his residency training in Maryland, with his wife, also a physician. After their residency, she accepted a fellowship in forensic psychology in Los Angeles where they set up housekeeping with a newborn daughter. It was shortly after the birth of his daughter that Burley got the idea for the novel:
From the moment the child enters the world, we are struck with the realization that there is another human being for whom we would sacrifice everything to protect - including our very lives, if necessary. This realization emerges not as the result of careful consideration and deliberation, but simply arrives as an idea fully-formed, self-evident, and absolutely irrefutable. As I encountered it within myself, the nature of such unquestioning love and dedication fascinated me. I wondered about what sort of circumstances might push that dedication to the limit, about how far it could be stretched, and about what might happen when it reached the breaking point.
He places his story in a small town just west of the Ohio River. Wintersville, Ohio is a quiet town about 50 miles outside of Pittsburgh. For the 5,000 residents, "[g]olfing, fishing and hunting were popular pastimes, and in early December folks came out for the annual Christmas parade."
A teenager is brutally killed one winter evening and Dr Ben Silverman, the town's Medical Examiner is called out for the autopsy. But first he moves to ensure the safety of his wife and two sons, one of whom is a teenager.
Accustomed to performing biopsies for oncologists, confirming the cause of death for elderly neighbors and the occasional autopsy of an automobile accident fatality, Dr Silverman masks his horror of the violent murder in the clinical terms of an autopsy, "like a shield to defend himself from what was real."
It is a murder so brutal that it simply must have been committed by an outsider, since this small town is one in which the sheriff knows everyone by name and neighbors routinely stop to chat on the street. Surely, no one they know could have committed such a violent act.
Months later a second attack on a teenager occurs and people are forced to rethink the stranger theory. And we are witness to the seeds of suspicion, the drawing closer of children by their parents and the tendency to not linger as long in the public square.
Meanwhile, Ben Silverman, is fiercely determined to protect his sons and his wife, even as his heavy-handed attempts at protection appear to be driving them apart as a family. He is plagued with a vague sense of uneasiness, a sense that something has been missed or forgotten. This uneasiness increases as the town begins to reveal its underlying secrets and it is readily transferred to the reader.
The main players in this story are clearly drawn, not just Dr Silverman and his family, but the people he works with, the police officers and his assistant, Nat, at the morgue. Most clearly drawn was the town itself, the setting that seemed to have more shadows than sunshine, complete with woods that drew people into the eerie spaces between the trees and a lowering winter sky that bordered on oppressive.
While the ending brings a resolution to the mystery, it leaves the reader with the lingering question of how far one would, or should, go to protect a child.
Overall, this is a good, solid psychological thriller for a first time writer who is currently at work on a second stand-alone novel.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.