Absence of Mercy


S. M. Goodwin


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

August 29, 2021

bsence of Mercy is the first book in what might be a new mystery series (the front cover calls it A Lightner and Law Mystery). Lightner is Lord Jasper Lightner, a wealthy, decorated veteran of the Crimean War. He is the son of a duke, and remarkably handsome. However, he s-s-stammers, so Lightner is not perfect. Also, serious injuries from his war-time exploits have resulted in the loss of much of his pre-war memories, though this point doesn't carry much weight in the plot of the novel. Pain from his battlefield experiences has led to Lightner having a mild addiction to opium. Lightner's sidekick is Detective Law, who is a tall, lanky Irishman who works as a detective on the New York police force. Law may or may not be corrupt - he begins the novel locked up in prison.

The year is 1857, just prior to the Civil War. Lightner has come from London to New York City to teach their police the new science of detection. Lightner has a famous reputation in London - using his new forensic skills, he has solved several crimes and he is the toast of the British press. But his father, the Duke, is apparently embarrassed to see Jasper's name in the paper - imagine a member of the aristocracy working for a living! To squelch any further press stories, the Duke connives to have Lightner sent off to New York for a year. For a man of the 19th century, Lightner has 21st century views of race, drugs, and sexual orientation.

Upon arrival, Lightner is immediately confronted by the grisly murders of two prominent businessmen. They were strangled just outside of brothels, and - most chillingly - the perpetrator carved a hunk of flesh out of their side. Lightner investigates, but immediately learns that New York's finest loathe his presence and want no part of his new-fangled methods. Even worse, the case files for the two dead men have gone missing. The imprisoned Law knows about the two dead men - he was involved in solving the crimes, so Lightner visits him in prison. Law wants to be freed from prison before revealing what he knows, and so the Lightner and Law partnership is formed.

Lightner begins his investigation - visiting the crime scenes, interviewing witnesses and relatives of the deceased, examining the bodies. Other than Law, Lightner works alone - the New York detectives aren't interested in learning his techniques.

New York City is depicted as a cesspit of mud and filth and squalor. It is poverty stricken, disease stricken and crime stricken. The women are whores who are used up and burned out by their twenties. The men a brutal drunkards who willing engage in petty (and not-so-petty) crimes. It is a grim, dark city, devoid of decency and happiness. Lightner trudges through this miasma of despair, trying to determine who killed the businessmen, when the killer strikes again. Another prominent businessman has been murdered in the same gruesome fashion - garroted and a pound of flesh carved from his side.

Lightner and Law interview and they pursue clues - but nothing seems to come together. There is no apparent motive, no apparent suspects. Finally, at the end of the novel, three different people end up explaining to Lightner what happened and why, who committed the murders and what their reasons were. I was disappointed by this. I want the detective to solve the crime, but it seems that Lightner's advanced police methods don't actually yield any results. Certainly he has nothing to show to the NY cops to convince them to adopt his new-fangled ideas.

The best part of this novel is perhaps its unrelenting depiction of mid-19th century New York City, steeped in misery, poverty and vice. It is a grim novel.