Absence of Mercy is the first of what I hope will be a very long string of books featuring Jasper Lightner, son of a duke sent to pre-Civil War America and Hieronymus Law, a former New York City policeman Lightner rescues from the Tombs, NYC’s notorious prison.
Lightner is a veteran of the Crimean War, having taken part in the charge of the Light Brigade and is the best Inspector the Metropolitan Police have. Police reformers in NYC have requested his assistance in solving a string of murders of wealthy men, all found outside brothels. The Home Secretary prefers that he go, but his father – horrified that the son of a duke is working at all – gives him a choice between two positions, neither of which he really wants: go to America for a year to assist them, or take a position that involves being a figurehead and nothing else. Lightner, stubborn, chooses to go to America for a year.
He lands not only in the period just prior to the American Civil War, but in a city already at war with itself, and corruption at every turn. The captain to whom he reports doesn’t want him, the rank and file resent him, and the Alderman he first meets seems to have his finger in every pie.
He begins his first case immediately: a wealthy man, killed in the same fashion two others were. As he susses out the case and finds out details of previous cases, he tracks down Law. Lightner’s boss has said he can have anyone he wants to assist him, so he basically jailbreaks Law in order to get the information Law has on the first two cases, as the case files for those have been conveniently lost at the precinct.
Together, they go through the mean streets of New York, into the bleakest, hellish basements of the poorest residents, to the posh and spotless homes of the very wealthy – including the widows of the men who had been killed.
As they continue to turn over every rock and put together evidence, they find men with disgusting predilections, men who claim to be reformers, men who actually are reformers helping free blacks flee to Canada (if you have seen 12 Years a Slave (and if you have not, you should) you will have seen at least one story of a free black man captured and sold into slavery; it is the same here in 1857 New York), women who know more than they tell, a plot involving guns, slaves, and money, and corrupt cops looking to get ahead by any means.
Lightner and Law’s investigation finally puts them on the trail to determining the culprit, but other factors are at work in the shadowy world of actors behind even the corrupt governing forces of New York. The real truth, when Lightner finally comes to it, is a punch to the gut.
This story takes no time at all to get moving – in fact, on the first page, we are with Lightner as he looks over a grisly murder scene. Lightner has sharp mind, an superb control of his emotions. Unfortunately, he also has a good chunk of his memory missing, a bum knee, gets headaches, and smokes opium-loaded cigars to treat his ailments. Law, for his part, turns out to be a fair detective himself, and tries to follow Lightner’s lead – asking questions people don’t want to answer, tracking down clues, so he can become a good detective rather than a fair one.
This is an excellent book, although there are a lot of characters, both dead and alive, and with differing loyalties, to keep straight. However, this does not detract from the book at all. The pace is quick when it needs to be, slower when it is appropriate. Overall, a superb read.
Five out of five stars.
Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for the review copy.