Merciless is author Richard Montanariís third novel featuring homicide
detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano. When Byrne spots a dangerous fugitive in a diner one evening, he knows he must act. Unfortunately for Byrne, the wanted man also spots him, and the events that follow quickly turn deadly. This was not exactly how Byrne wanted to finish out what had been a peaceful vacation.
Byrne and his partner, Detective Jessica Balzano, heading out to investigate
a cold case when they get a call about a body found on the bank of the Schuylkill River
thanks to an anonymous tip. They quickly change their plans and head for the crime scene, braving the cold winter weather. The body is clearly posed, sitting on the bank as if looking out at the river clothed only in what appears to be a vintage dress much too
large for the woman wearing it. As the evidence is gathered, the mystery deepens.
When a second body is discovered and evidence points to the same killer, the detectives begin to worry that they have a serial killer on their hands. They are still nowhere closer to knowing who may have killed Karen, the first victim, so the hunt continues and the stakes grow higher. Murder does not wait for one investigation to finish before another begins, and true to form, the brutal murder of a just-retired detective has everyone on edge. The already short-staffed homicide division is stretched to its limit as the two high-profile cases are investigated. The media attention is an added weight the police do not really need, much less want.
Richard Montanari is careful in his details, not giving anything away too soon. He is good at obfuscating the truth right until the very end. Certain themes can be found running through the novel, most particularly the way
in which past cases and past horrors continue to haunt and impact the present. There is no getting away from it, no real way to avoid it.
Byrne and Balzano have worked together for several years now, and the reader falls quickly into their rhythm. Jessica is a young mother, balancing work, marriage and motherhood. Byrne is a divorced father, burdened by past cases and old nightmares. The killer himself is an interesting character, a wounded and delusional man. He is quite intriguing, his motives somewhat obvious and yet still hazy as the story unfolds.
One of the draws of Richard Montanariís book is the setting. Philadelphia is more than just a place-name in the authorís recent novels, and that holds true with
Merciless, in which not only the city but the winter season play important roles. The city is as much a character as the people themselves, and the wintry weather has a voice of its own.
Merciless takes readers in a number if different directions, and there is a lot of set up, threatening to bog down the story at times but never quite doing so. Once the pieces begin to fall into place, the novel takes off and there is no going back. Although this is not his strongest novel, Richard Montanari continues to be a master storyteller, and Merciless is well worth reading.