Mercy by David Kessler

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Mercy by David Kessler

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Clare Reddaway
Reviewed by Clare Reddaway
Summary: A breathless, hectically-paced thriller, this 'can the lawyer save his client from death row' crime novel has some stonking plot twists and is certainly a page-turner.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 568 Date: November 2009
Publisher: Avon
ISBN: 978-1847561824

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In some ways, the first line of this novel says it all: 'It's hard to sit still when your client is scheduled to die in fifteen hours.' From this moment on, the action comes thick and fast, leaving the reader with barely the breath to murmer 'is it really probable that all this was left to the last day?' However, if you suspend your disbelief, then the author does deliver blockbuster plot twists and twirls that are very satisfactory.

Clayton Burrows is on death row awaiting execution in San Quentin, California. He has been found guilty of the murder of Dorothy Olsen. The evidence seems conclusive: the victim's blood- and semen-stained panties were found under Burrows' floorboards, together with a bloody knife marked with his fingerprints. Breast tissue from the victim was discovered in a plastic bag at the back of the freezer in his home. The police were tipped off anonymously. Although a body was never found, Burrows has no explanation for the presence of any of this damning evidence in his house and it is enough to convict him.

Our hero is Alex Sedaka, a lawyer who has recently been appointed by Burrows. Burrows was initially defended by a Public Defender, after which a 'liberal-leaning law firm' took on the case. When they failed to get the verdict overturned, they withdrew and Sedaka was appointed, about six weeks before the execution is scheduled. When the book opens, fifteen hours before the execution is due to take place, Sedaka is summoned to the Governor's office and made an offer. If Burrows will tell the victim's mother where the body of her daughter is, then the sentence could be commuted to life imprisonment.

As the minutes count down to the zero hour of the execution, we follow Sedaka as he makes the offer to Burrows, and contemplates his client's possible innocence. He uncovers evidence that has never before been aired. He interviews family members and makes connections that have not been explored. He and his small team discover an intriguing web of secrets and build a case for Burrows. However, the question is will they be able to do so in time.

This novel is carefully, intricately plotted and very pacey. There are plenty of revelations to keep the reader on their toes. The impending death of the defendent gives the whole book an urgency that it would otherwise lack. However, in some ways as a reader I rebelled against this. Being plunged into the story at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour might seem to be a clever way to provide automatic energy and excitement, but I missed the build up to a climax. It is difficult to sustain such heightened suspense for 544 pages, and it is slightly exhausting for a reader.

It is hard not to think that it is a gimmick to structure the book in this way, and that by doing so, the author has made the plot or the case unbelievable. Maybe it is overly naive of me to think that some of the discoveries that Sedaka makes would have been uncovered by any policeman on the inital investigation, or by any other half-way-decent lawyer. Maybe it doesn't matter. But had the discoveries been made in a more leisured way, without the breathless timetable of impending death, I would perhaps have questioned them less.

One of the victims of the pace of the novel is characterisation. Many of the characters, their backgrounds, family and relationships are only lightly sketched. This is a shame, as Kessler has created some interesting characters. I did enjoy Alex Sedaka. He has the flaws, humanity and intelligence that make him an attractive and compelling lead figure, who has the potential to carry future novels. I'd enjoy reading about him again. However, I would have liked to get more than the fleeting glimpses I was offered of what was going on in his head.

This kind of crime novel does depend on authenticity, and the writer certainly seems to have done his homework. He appears (at least to this layperson) to have a thorough knowledge of American law, and of police techniques. He has done some in-depth research about DNA which he puts to good use. However, perhaps his most impressive piece of detection technique relates to computers. I don't wish to spoil the plot, so I will merely say that this strand of the story shows a compelling understanding of the insides of machines. Another strand, concerning medical practices, I found slightly less convincing. However, the author does not over-load the novel with research, and where he employs it, it is interesting and readable.

There is a lot to enjoy in this book. It is very readable and it is a page turner. It is not predictable, it does provide surprises and it is a good story. However, I have to say that I – someone who never, ever guesses the outcome of thrillers and crime novels - did guess what had happened in this story a long way before the end. But that did not really detract from my enjoyment of it. Although the anti-captial punishment argument is not really alluded to in this story, it has to be the underlying message, which gives the novel a moral backbone which is to be admired. All in all, I'd say it was a good curl-in-front-of-the-fire book for a winter's afternoon.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then we can recommend The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha which has a similar theme.

Buy Mercy by David Kessler at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Mercy by David Kessler at

Buy Mercy by David Kessler at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Mercy by David Kessler at


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