‘Merciless’: murder & hidden agendas in South Dakota

Unlike many of her peers in the thriller and mystery genres, Lori Armstrong has never had a problem mixing the professional and the personal in her gripping series of novels about an ex-Army sniper named Mercy Gunderson.

On the surface, Mercy is as tough a character as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher — she is very skilled with guns and is completely capable of taking care of herself in the most dangerous situations.

What gives the series its real distinction, however, is the way we get to know Mercy as a person — a woman with a strong sex drive whose career and lifestyle have often gotten in the way of her building long-term relationships.

In the just-published “Merciless” (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster), Mercy is adjusting to her new job with the FBI as she sets up house — and contemplates marriage — with the local county sheriff Mason Dawson.

Pressure is put on the relationship when Mason’s son from a previous marriage comes to live with the couple (we learn that his mother is a horror who only agrees to give up the boy if Mason keeps sending child support checks to her).

The arrival of the boy is a painful reminder to Mercy — and her family — of the nephew who was killed in the previous novel. Her new case also stirs up the leftover grief and anger — a young teenage Native American girl who is murdered on a nearby reservation in a way that ghoulishly and brutally references her own love of the “Twilight” books and films.

Armstrong writes so fluidly that the two halves of the narrative come together seamlessly — we never view the personal moments as an interruption of the mystery, but as a deepening of our connection with this terrific character. Setting is often one of the key components in the appeal of a mystery series and the Mercy novels gives us a strong sense of what it might be like to live a far-flung life in the open spaces of South Dakota.

Armstrong is another of the ever-growing pool of fine contemporary writers who have broken down the arbitrary walls that are so often set up in crime fiction. “Merciless” is a great read and I can’t wait to see where Armstrong might go next with this extraordinary series.

Joe Meyers