This thriller is the first effort of a promising storyteller, Burley diving right into the meat of the matter, so to speak, with a truly grotesque murder and mutilation of a boy in the woods of Wintersville, Ohio. The body is so brutally savaged that is almost impossible for authorities to make an accurate identification once the dead boy is discovered. Given the lack of identity, panicked parents await their childrenís return from school, Ben and Susan Stevenson among them, their younger son, Joel safely near. When sixteen-year-old Thomas arrives on the bus, their relief is only tempered by the knowledge that Ben, the town medical examiner, will be doing the autopsy on the victim.
None of those involvedóneither police chief, detectives, nor the seasoned examineróis prepared for the savagery of the attack, from innumerable stab wounds to the wounds clearly identifiable as bite marks. Moving to Wintersville from Pittsburgh, hoping to avoid the chaos of the city, Ben could never have imagined facing such a disturbing sight as the young body on his exam table. Neither has he words for a grieving father who stands howling at the side of his lost boy. Medical examiner and detectives face the daunting task of finding a monster, calming a community, and facing the intruding microphones of eager reporters wanting a story. A long nightmare has begun, one that haunts Stevensonís waking and sleeping hours, from his work as a physician to the home front, where his fear has infected family harmony, Susan impatient with Benís refusal to lighten the reins on Thomas. The horror of the attack has infected Benís life, from the certainty that there will be another attack if no arrests are made to the realization that his attitude at home has left his wife resentful and uncommunicative and his teen-aged son more than usually rebellious.
Burley mines this conflict skillfully, moving easily between the frustrations of the investigation to Benís internal dialog at work and at home. When a girl from Thomasís own high school crowd is attacked after a party by the same perpetrator, the town spins once again into panic and outrage. Monica Bressler survives, barely, in a coma and gravely wounded, haunted by her own dark nightmares as she lies unconscious in her hospital bed, tubes and IVs connecting her to life. Monica, badly damaged (bitten and mutilated), survives, but Ben and the police chief are certain there will be another attack, each one more bold and savage. Burley segues from the details of the case to Benís growing problems at home with Susan. He cannot break through his wifeís reticence, too overwhelmed to invest the time until the killer is found.
Though months have passed since the first killing and Monica has made progress, Thomas becoming a close friend, the tension surrounding Wintersville never lessens. Burley drives both characters and events to a collision that is not only unexpected but adds another layer to the psychological implications of the thriller. Beyond the horrific physical descriptions of crime scenes and injuries, Burley delves deeply into the psyches of his main characters, creating unresolved conflicts and untenable situations that drive the story to a powerful and disturbing ending. The bucolic peace of a small community, the security of folks who have known one another all their lives, the sanctity of the home and the evidence of a monster in the midst of innocents are all shattered in The Absence of Mercy. Keep the lights on and the doors locked, but donít be surprised if you have bad dreams.