Lord, Have Mercy
With just two books, No Mercy and the Shamus winning Mercy Kill, Lori Armstrong won me over with her series character Mercy Gunderson. A former member of an elite and secret team of female snipers, sidelined by an eye injury, Mercy tries to adjust to civilian and family life on her deceased father’s ranch run by her sister and brother-in-law. Of course threats to hearth and home force her to resort to her lethal ways. The series successfully mixes the thriller and modern western and with the latest, Merciless, neither character nor creator show signs of slowing down.
Armstrong gives Mercy a large amount of change to deal with in this book. On the personal side, her live-in boyfriend and local sheriff, Mason, needs his teenage son to move in with them. She has also started her new job as an FBI agent. Her first case deals with the body of a teenage girl on the Eagle River reservation. Mercy soon suspects that she is one in a string of murders and as she dives into the investigation as the killings strike closer to home.
It’s Armstrong’s use of her South Dakota home that makes these books pop. It’s a place of rowdy bars, tough gay bouncers, an even mix of bigotry and acceptance of others, small rodeos, hard living, and men and women with a need to prove themselves who usually can. She strikes a great balance between dismissing some notions of the west while upholding others, making South Dakota a gritty, believable place, where a legend can happen. Also, like Craig Johnson, she uses the friction between whites and Indians (with Merci being both) to ratchet up the tension in the story.
Mercy becomes an even more complex character in this book. Raised by her father as a tomboy and trained as a soldier, she has been brought up to have many traits considered “male.” She drinks, cusses, gets into bar fights, and in her relationship with Mason she worries about being “girlie”. We love her for all of it, especially when she picks up her rifle and takes care of business. It’s the more domestic side of life she struggles to embrace.
In a way, Armstrong has turned the traditional thriller heroine on her head. Both she and the reader are pretty confident she can face any physical threat. It’s being comfortable with her “feminine” side where the struggle comes in. It’s her relationship with Mason, a lover who worships both these sides of her and isn’t intimidated, especially by the fact that she can out-shoot him, that adds a fresh dimension to the thriller as well as making it completely human in its tone. As far as I know this is the only book where the most romantic moment occurs over deer hunting.
Merciless is both a great progression of the series as well as being a good novel to introduce new readers to Mercy. Lori Armstrong provides a strong plot with forward momentum, and with the messiness of real love and life woven through. I’m looking forward to what’s in store for Mercy next.