Without Mercy by Lois Gilbert
(Onyx, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-40941-8
***
The front cover of Without Mercy promises a novel "in the tradition of Barbara Delinsky." Don't you believe it for a second, dear readers! While Lois Gilbert is a talented writer, this novel is much darker than anything Delinsky has ever released. It should be more accurately compared to Meg O'Brien and Bethany Campbell's suspense novels.

Brett McBride is trying to get her life back on track. After her divorce, the dedicated physician spent a year in Sudan, on a futile mission to help starving and ill children. She returned to her home in upstate New York, exhausted and disillusioned, to realize that her daughter, Amy, had turned into a sullen, resentful teenager. Attempts to bond with Amy at Brett's old family farm have not worked. The guidance of Brett's grandmother, who raised her and her brother Ryan from childhood, is not filling the deep well of hunger that Brett feels in her soul. And the unexpected attraction Brett feels for Noah, the new handyman, is more disturbing than enjoyable.

Then things get even worse. On a trek through her grandmother's property, Brett finds a dead body lying in the snow. Although the victim was shot to death, Brett sees signs that the man was suffering from end-stage AIDS. Why kill someone who probably only had a few weeks left to live? Brett is shocked when a stranger turns up at the house and delivers news that turns the world on its ear: the dead man is not simply an unlucky person who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has a strong connection to Brett, Ryan and Gran. As a snowstorm rages, Brett is trapped in her home with the disturbing stranger, while secrets keep emerging, until everything Brett believed about her life is shown to be based on lies and half-truths. While she's grappling with these issues, she is also dealing with the growing certainty that she is living with a murderer. Meanwhile, Amy gets nastier while things with Noah heat up.

Without Mercy starts strongly. In the opening scene, Brett's irrational hunger reaches a pivotal moment as she hunts down a huge buck and realizes her need to find food has gone overboard. But once the murder victim is found, the novel degenerates into ugliness upon ugliness, with few if any sympathetic characters. I hesitate to reveal details of the plot, but I will say that at various points the reader is confronted with current or past rapes, suicides, fatal illnesses, and arson. This bleak story could have been more palatable with the right mix of characters. But, starting with Brett, they fail. It's hard to feel sorry for Brett and her difficulties with Amy; who can blame a child for being angry at her mother for abandoning her just when she needed stability and security? Yet Amy doesn't engender many warm feelings; she is almost totally out of control, resorting to petty crimes and violence to express her hostility. It's amazing to me that no one took this child in hand and disciplined her long ago.

Brett's brother Ryan is almost equally despicable, a childish, selfish and irresponsible compulsive gambler who blames his problems on everyone but himself. When pictures emerge of the stranger who visits Brett's home and of the murder victim, the reader discovers that they, too, are anything but honorable.

Within all of this gloom, it's hard to care about the budding relationship between Brett and Noah. Yes, there's a happy ending of sorts, but after almost everyone else is dead or forever haunted by tragedy, it seems an anomaly.

Don't get me wrong - I don't think novels have to be full of laughter and light. I like dark novels as much as anyone. But without any genuine heroes, or any justice for past wrongs, I'm left with only an empty feeling inside. I guess the title, Without Mercy, should have warned me. Gilbert's writing is taut and suspenseful, very strong for only her sophomore effort. If you like the noir genre, you might appreciate the novel. As for me, I'll think twice next time I criticize one of those ditzy, screwball romances that are so popular these days. In fact, I think that's just what I need right now.

--Susan Scribner


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