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The Absence of Mercy: A Novel

The Absence of Mercy: A Novel

4.0 18
by John Burley

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John Burley’s The Absence of Mercy is a harrowing tale of suspense involving a brutal murder and dark secrets that lie beneath the surface of a placid, tight-knit Midwestern town.

When a brutally murdered teenager is discovered in the woods surrounding a small Ohio town, Dr. Ben Stevenson—the town’s medical examiner—must decide if


John Burley’s The Absence of Mercy is a harrowing tale of suspense involving a brutal murder and dark secrets that lie beneath the surface of a placid, tight-knit Midwestern town.

When a brutally murdered teenager is discovered in the woods surrounding a small Ohio town, Dr. Ben Stevenson—the town’s medical examiner—must decide if he’s willing to put his family’s life in danger to uncover the truth. Finding himself pulled deeper into an investigation with devastating consequences, he discovers shocking information that will shatter his quiet community, and force him to confront a haunting truth.

With its eerie portrait of suburban life and nerve-fraying plot twists, The Absence of Mercy is domestic drama at its best for fans of Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, Jennifer McMahon, and Lisa Gardner.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Early in Burley’s fine first novel, a psychological thriller, Dr. Ben Stevenson returns one afternoon to his house in Wintersville, Ohio, to find his wife, Susan, terribly upset. Susan has just learned that an unidentified high school boy has been found in the local woods, apparently fatally stabbed on his way home from school. Ben and Susan have two sons, one high school age. Ben, the medical examiner for Wintersville, conducts the autopsy on the victim, who was mutilated. This vicious attack proves to be only the first of a series of assaults and murders. Ben, who’s beset by nightmares involving his sons, finds himself drawn far more deeply into the case than he’s mentally and emotionally prepared for. Burley, an emergency room physician, peppers the taut, cohesive narrative with plenty of authentic forensic detail. Only an unexpectedly hasty wrap-up that leaps forward in time rings false. Agent: Paul Lucas, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Dec.)
“[A] chilling debut. . . . Burley sensitively portrays parents dealing with damage and loss . . . in this relentlessly readable thriller that will leave readers of suspense waiting for more.”
Iron Mountain Daily News
“A tense thriller . . . [and] contemporary horror story that will keep readers on pins and needles until the very last page.”
Contra Costa Times
“John Burley is an emergency room physician, and his hospital experience informs this taut first novel, a psychological thriller . . . [he] explores the disturbing pathologies behind the crimes . . . and The Absence of Mercy is a page-turner all the way to the end.”
Suspense Magazine
“A true psychological thriller down to its very core . . . will both thrill you and cause you to turn away at the same time, this is one debut novel that will definitely make you lock your windows and doors in suburbia before heading off to bed.”
Alice LaPlante
“Will send chills down your spine. A taut psychological thriller . . . pushes the boundaries of our understanding of the lengths a parent will go to protect their child.”
Wendy Corsi Staub
“Harlan Coben meets Patricia Cornwell in an idyllic suburbia stalked by a predator that will leave an indelible mark long after the final page is turned.”
Ace Atkins
“In the tradition of Robin Cook and Kathy Reichs, John Burley brings murder to small town America. And like those bestselling novels, The Absence of Mercy is written by an expert who can also tell a really good tale. This one oozes authenticity.”
Linwood Barclay
“It’s become a cliché to say you read a book in one sitting, and it’s not true here. I had to get up in the middle of The Absence of Mercy for a drink to calm my nerves.”
Heather Gudenkauf
“Riveting, disturbing and complex, John Burley’s The Absence of Mercy is impossible to put down. The suspense starts early and is unrelenting until the very end.”
Kirkus Reviews
Abandoned in the woods, the first victim is a local high school student, a 15-year-old boy. The brutality of his death contrasts with the precision of the blows, head wounds accurately driven into the weak points of the human skull. It appears this is not the murderer's first execution. This serial killer lurks in the idyllic town of Wintersville, just miles from the Ohio River. He savages his victims with not only a long, tapered, mysterious instrument, but also his teeth, ripping flesh, shredding blood vessels, amputating fingers. Medical examiner Ben Stevenson methodically catalogs the wounds, recording each laceration and avulsion with clinical objectivity. Simultaneously, Stevenson wants to protect his family and his young assistant, Nat, from the horror, but no one is safe from a murderer who strikes in broad daylight. The case weighs upon Ben, straining his relationship with his wife, Susan, a family practitioner, and their two sons, 16-year-old Thomas and 8-year-old Joel. His fears prompt nightmares of close calls with his own sons--a clown that menaced Thomas, an accidental fall that left Joel comatose. Hopes rise when a victim is found alive, barely clinging to life. Although Monica Dressler replays much of her ordeal in her dreams, she unfortunately recalls little of her assailant. As Thomas helps Monica recover and Susan becomes increasingly anxious, Ben works with law enforcement to piece together the evidence. Using his experience as an emergency room physician, Burley skillfully uses the step-by-step discovery of evidence to ratchet up the tension in his debut novel. Tool markings on the victims' bones, DNA evidence collected from their skin and even unusual dental impressions lifted from their wounds add up. Soon, Ben can no longer deny that the evidence points much too close to home. A smart, disturbing and heartbreaking thriller.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

John Burley is the award-winning author of The Absence of Mercy, which won the National Black Ribbon Award recognizing a new voice in suspense writing. He attended medical school in Chicago and completed his emergency medicine residency at University of Maryland Medical Center and R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. He continues to serve as an emergency medicine physician in Northern California, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and Great Dane.

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The Absence of Mercy: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Ronrose More than 1 year ago
Dr Ben Stevenson thought he knew the people in the sleepy Ohio town where he and his wife chose to raise their two children. He was wrong. He thought he knew his wife and children. He was wrong. He thought he knew how far he would go to protect them. He was wrong. If you have a family that you have devoted your life to raising and protecting, this thriller will sneak up on you and hit you right where it hurts. If you think this sort of violence would never happen in your neighborhood, you're wrong. If you think you've seen or read it all, you haven't. If you haven't had a chill run down your spine lately, now's the time. If you are a bit put off by pedantic descriptions of extensive autopsy procedures in the early chapters, hang in there, the story gets better.
Twink More than 1 year ago
John Burley makes his fiction debut with The Absence of Mercy. In the small Ohio town of Wintersville, Dr. Ben Stevenson wears two hats - that of the town doctor and when needed, that of the medical examiner. But rarely is he called to examine violent deaths - Wintersville is a place where the neighbours all know your name - and a lot of times, your business. Who then could be responsible for the frenzied attack on a local teenager that left him dead in a field? Suddenly, folks are locking their doors and keeping their kids close. That goes double for Ben. His older son was friends with the slain boy. Ben becomes more involved with the investigation, especially when another attack occurs - and the victim is found barely alive. Burley explores the reaction to such a crime through the townsfolk, most notably the teenagers in town and through Ben's eyes - both as a father and a coroner. This is a lot of the focus of the book, as there are not a lot of clues to follow. Instead, things ratchet up a notch when the killer's identity becomes known. While I was not overly surprised at this turn, it did raise some interesting questions. I was surprised at where Burley chose to take his story after that - it was a nice twist. I'm not sure if I liked the ending, but again it wasn't nice and tied up with a bow. I like that. And I liked this debut by John Burley - I would pick up his next book without hesitation. Burley's background is in medicine. This background certainly gives the medical scenes a ring of authenticity. But, after a few lengthy descriptions it also had me skipping further explanations - they were filled with too much 'technical' jargon. The title? "The same was true for the absence of mercy – not because mercy was something such individuals chose to withhold, but because it was a faculty they simply did not possess." Chilling.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I believe this might be a first book by a physician. For that I congratulate him on stepping out of his comfort zone and writing a novel somehow in his spare time. The main character is a a doctor who's the coroner for a small Ohio town. I almost put the book down when the first description of an autopsy had too many medical references that laymen wouldn't know about. The plot was okay, but I was disappointed that there wasn't a sufficient explanation of the villain's motives. But I would encourage the author to try another book now that he's proven that he can do it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
In a few short words this book is fantastic. Author has new one coming in Feb and I already ordered it. Must read!!!!
Kuby2U More than 1 year ago
Absence of Mercy is a compelling medical mystery that I could not put down. Dr. John Burley utilized his vast trauma and ER experience to weave this novel with the perfect mix of terror and compassion. This is the best book I have read this year. I'm looking forward to more.
lindyLW More than 1 year ago
A really great mystery, that keeps you guessing till the end. I couldn`t put it down
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great fast pace book. I stayed up well into the night to finish. This is what nightmares are made of!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed the book. It was hard to put down. Surprise comes to a small town. Suspenseful and with a twist. The very end left me wanting more. Can't wait for the next book! Ron57
KrittersRamblings More than 1 year ago
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings A book with a serial killer with the coroner and his family at the center, what a great change to the normal serial killer book.  I loved having the main character be a different part of the investigation; it gave a different perspective on how the hunt for a serial killer can unfold. WHAT a twist!  I have to keep this review brief because I just can't reveal anything that would ruin the spoiler on this one!  The killer came out of nowhere for me, but not too far that I felt annoyed.  It was just out of left field that I wanted to read it again to pick up on any more clues that I think I may have missed!  I absolutely adore being surprised!  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down! I stayed up all night and finished in one sitting. Never a dull moment and I really was suprised at who the killer was
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very disappointed in the ending. Left me scratching my head. I'm not stupid but I had to look up too many words. Liked the first part.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Uninspired, trite, predictable. Zero character development - they felt distant and abstract. Had the ending figured out VERY early on, and only finished the book in hopes I'd be proven wrong/caught offguard. I'm amazed there are so many good reviews for this book. To me, it speaks to the dumbing down of our culture. At the end of this book and at many points throughout, I thought to myself, if this man can be a published author, why have I not tried?
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buttons0 More than 1 year ago
Good read, could have been longer.