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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Serial Killer Menaces an Ohio Family in John Burley's Debut Thriller

By John Burley
355 pages
ISBN: 0062227378
(William Morrow Paperbacks, Nov. 19, 2013)
Sold by: Harper Collins Publishers
ASIN: B00BATKQR­­­­­­­­
Ben and Susan Stevenson live in Wintersville, Ohio, with their two sons, Thomas and Julian, a close-knit family in a village where everybody seems to know their neighbors and few secrets go undiscovered.

Their small-town life is so low-key and excitement free that it seems to be patterned on a Norman Rockwell painting: Ben is the county coroner, a medical examiner charged with determining the cause of death in cases where the victim is not under a doctor's care; Susan is a respected physician at a local hospital. They are important figures in the community -- well-known and highly valued by their fellow residents.

And then a grisly, savage murder occurs that shatters the illusion of their idyllic life and threatens to tear the family apart. It will soon be followed by another hideous attack more violent than the first – and a third which is even worse.

As medical examiner, Ben must work closely with County Sheriff Sam Garson and two of Garson’s investigators, Detectives Carl Schroeder and Danny Hunt, to gather and analyze the forensic evidence in the case and identify the killer. It’s no easy task as a number of red herrings quickly appear to complicate the case; for example, one of them, a powerfully built and severely mentally ill man who identifies himself as "Harold Matthews," shows up immediately after the second victim is attacked.

Adding to the suspense, the murderer seems to be stalking Stevenson’s own family; he even leaves the dismembered hand of one of his victims in a bag leaning against the wall of the coroner’s office as a direct challenge to the pathologist.

The astute reader will very likely realize who the killer is before the cops and Stevenson do, but just knowing whodunit will not reduce the book's thrills: this is one of those suspense novels in which the reader is literally kept on the edge of his or her seat right up through the last page.

Author Burley is an emergency room physician in Northern California who once worked in a small town like Wintersville. Although he is not a pathologist, he brings considerable story-telling talent and medical expertise to bear on this gripping debut thriller that holds the reader's interest from its very first  page. With one exception his characters are well-wrought and his narrative is solidly constructed and believable.

John Burley's first thriller, The Absence of Mercy holds the reader's interest from its very first  page.  

Still, Absence of Mercy is a first book and Burley makes a number of rookie errors in it.

To begin with, on two different occasions he drifts into the “Gray’s Anatomy” school of mystery: piling up unnecessary medical detail until the reader begins to founder. This copious technical information adds little to the story and could just as easily be glossed over. It is almost as if Burley doesn't trust his readers and feels he must help them along by feeding them a diet rich in Greek and Latin medical terminology to make them believe he knows what he is writing about.

Burley also tends to repeat himself, particularly at the beginning of the story. For example, after introducing Sam Gargan, Burley reminds us how tall, powerfully built and formidable the sheriff is five times in less than ten pages. He manages to get control over his repetitious style as the story continues, but it initially gives the reader the impression that Burley is stumbling and unsure of where he wants his story to go next.

Finally there are small technical glitches in Burley's novel that tend to distract the reader from his otherwise first-rate story-telling. For example, in his introductory passages about Gargan, Burley can't seem to decide whether the lawman is Wintersville's chief of police or the county sheriff.

As anyone who has read much American crime fiction is aware, there is a major difference between the two jobs: sheriffs are county-wide officials who patrol and enforce the law in unincorporated areas; police chiefs are municipal department heads who have primary authority in a specific incorporated city within a county.

When he refers to Gargan by both titles, Burley forces the reader to backtrack to determine whether he has simply misidentified the man or is talking about a new character who was not mentioned earlier in the story.  In a thriller like this one that largely depends on pace to sustain its suspense, anything that draws the reader away from the story line, even for a moment, tends to sabotage the narrative.

Setting aside these errors, Absence of Mercy is a first-rate page-turner -- good enough, at any rate, to receive the National Black Ribbon Award from Book-of-the-Month Club.  Burley handles descriptive passages well, especially in his account of the first murder, a scene setter that could easily have sabotaged the entire novel if rendered poorly. He conjures a real sense of the community in which the action takes place and -- with one exception -- does an excellent job of investing his characters with real personalities that make them rise up off the page.

His dialog is generally solid except for a couple of passages that are rendered in rather clumsy dialect that lack the verisimilitude of the rest of the book.

What really sells the novel to me are passages of fine writing that are sprinkled throughout the text like little surprise packages for discerning readers.

In the passage introducing Sam Gargan, for example, Burley writes, "the large man seemed to lean against the building with enough purpose to make one wonder whether he perhaps moonlighted as a structural support beam for the [coroner's office's] front exterior facade."

Later a man shows up to identify the body of the first victim and suddenly realizes he is going to have to tell his wife that their son is dead, his face ripped to pieces by the killer's teeth: "The intrusive ringing of the phone at the front desk had finally stopped and the [office] was quiet and still, at least for the time being," Burley writes. "The only sound in the room was the shushing cadence of breath that slid slowly in and out of each chest but one."

These are excellent touches that move the novel from the category of workmanlike thriller into the more rarified realm of literature. If Burley takes the time to insert more of them in his story while avoiding the repetitions, technical mistakes and overdependence on medical jargon that occasionally characterize his first novel, he could easily collect the same sort of specialized fan base as Scott Thurow or John Grisham, except writing from the medical perspective rather than the legal point of view.

I suspect that Burley spotted the weak points in his novel as it was rolling off the presses and will avoid similar errors in the future. We will know for sure when his next book appears sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.

I certainly hope this is the case because Absence of Mercy, despite its flaws, is a fine first effort that has much to recommend it.

Burley will appear at a book signing and reading at the Capitola Book Cafe in Capitola, California on Dec. 12th, 2013. He will read from The Absence of Mercy, sign books and answer questions about his debut thriller beginning at 7 p.m. that evening.

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