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Review: Absence of Mercy, by S. M. Goodwin
Crooked Lane, 2020. 305 pp. $27

In April 1857, Jasper Lightner, star detective of the London police force and keen student of scientific methods, faces a crisis that threatens his career. His obdurate father, a duke who’s found fault with his second son forever, believes that Jasper’s chosen profession stains the family escutcheon. But since His Lordship can’t deter his wayward progeny by cutting off his allowance — an aunt has conveniently left Jasper a sizable legacy — he applies political pressure instead. The duke gives Jasper an ultimatum: leave the police force or go to (ugh!) New York and teach the colonial upstarts how to sleuth properly, if he likes.

Jasper doesn’t particularly like — his imperious valet, Paisley, likes it even less — but our hero accepts the journey as an adventure. What he doesn’t know and couldn’t possibly anticipate, no sooner has he landed than he realizes he’s walked into a snake pit. Not only does every copper in the city resent him on sight, whether for his nationality (they’re Irish), reverse snobbery about his class, or because they believe that the interloper will expose the incredible corruption they take as their right.

The nonstop political turf war, with gangs, Tammany Hall, and rivalries within the force, may turn violent any second; woe betide the newcomer, who can’t know whose toes he’s just stepped on. And oh, by the way, someone’s cutting through the ranks of the city’s wealthiest men, killing them in copycat fashion, with garrotte and knife. The mayor wants these murders solved yesterday.

Absence of Mercy, the first of a promised series, wades into this donnybrook with gusto. If you like complicated mysteries in which bodies fall by the day, perceptions change by the hour, and the gritty atmosphere could be packed into a ball and used to scrape rust, you’ll find your pleasures here.

A woodcut from 1870 shows the Criminal Court in lower Manhattan. The complex included an infamous prison known as The Tombs, built in 1835. The author of this novel portrays what it was like inside (courtesy Corporation of the City of New York via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

But clever as the plot is — at times, too clever for me to follow — the most winning aspect of this novel is its protagonist. I’ve never encountered a detective like Jasper Lightner, and maybe you haven’t, either. You might suppose that a thumbnail sketch of his past reminds you of a cross-genre James Bond. Handsome? Check. Suave? You got it. Throw in his impeccable manners, refusal to rise to the insults that his legion of enemies hurls at him, and magnetism for women, and you’ve just about spelled trope. Do I need to mention that he’s a veteran of the Crimea, a survivor of the charge of the Light Brigade, and trained to become a doctor, only to abandon his studies shortly before completing them?

But hold on. This paragon stutters, badly, except in the rare moments when he allows himself anger. Paisley, his valet, scares him. Jasper’s former fiancée married his brother. He suffers nightmares because of that infamous charge, and he hates that Tennyson wrote a poem about it. He still carries shrapnel from the battle, and to dull his pains, physical and emotional, he favors madak, tobacco laced with opium. Most importantly, despite his social gifts, sensitivity, and kindness, he can’t abide intimacy:

Surviving childhood with the duke had been very much like protecting a castle from invaders. Over the years Jasper had become an expert at repelling attacks, repairing breaches, and strengthening defenses while he waited his father’s next offensive. Now, in his thirties, his castle walls were impregnable. Thanks to the duke, nothing — and nobody — could ever get close enough to hurt him.

Consequently, Jasper pulls you in thoroughly, and you’ll need that connection as your compass, because Absence of Mercy visits the most degraded locales in a filthy metropolis. Goodwin lovingly portrays the muck, stench, and horror of New York life for the teeming underclass less than a mile from Fifth Avenue, but who might as well inhabit another planet. Life’s hard, and a man like Jasper, who believes in justice, has his work cut out for him.

Aside from occasionally losing the threads tying motive to crime and the timing of who said or did what, when, I find this novel absolutely engrossing. Every once in a while, the diction slips, as Jasper speaks like an American, whereas his American assistant, a detective improbably named Hieronymus (Hy) Law, talks like an Englishman. But despite that, Goodwin’s a careful writer with a gift for creating vivid scenes and a sense of history, for the narrative takes place during the years of the Fugitive Slave Act, which figures in the story and puzzles our English protagonist.

If you go along for the ride, don’t be alarmed if the odd detail puzzles you. Let yourself be swept along, and you’ll be rewarded.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.