Sunday, March 17, 2013

“No Mercy” portrays woman Iraq vet going home to hornet's nest of complications

 by Minnie Apolis

On page 22, one paragraph pretty well sums up the whole plot without giving it all away.
“With my assorted injuries, the loss of my career, the grief and stress of losing my father, and my having to make a decision on the ranch, I doubted my life could get more complicated or out of my control.
“Famous last words.”
(Note the foreshadowing there.)

Fictional stories with an Iraq vet are pretty scarce, and those with a female military veteran are almost non-existent. So for Lori Armstrong to start a series of novels in 2010 with such a female protagonist was pretty gutsy and risky.

Main character Mercy is on leave from the armed forces with an eye injury that precludes continuing in her specialty. She returns home to a family ranch in western South Dakota after the death of her father (her mother had died accidentally years earlier, another family tragedy seen in flashbacks).

Sibling friction with sister Hope, who is viewed as something of a flake or non-achiever, provides another layer of plot, but secretly I hoped that sister Hope would be offed pretty quickly so we'd be done with all that sister cr*p.

No such luck.

While out on target practice, Mercy is waylaid by some sweet-talking realtor who opines that he'd like to see the ranch preserved for its historical import to the community – while she sees right through that. Mercy can see that when he talks about dividing it up into 500-acre starter ranches for young couples, that it ain't gonna work. Five hundred acres in dry country will not support a herd that will support a family.

So what he is really proposing is developing “hobby ranches” where wealthy folks can play cowboy and pretend to be roughing it while sitting air-conditioned half-million-dollar housing.

That deal was a no-go as far as Mercy was concerned. Lucky she's the one in charge of what the future of the ranch will be, and she is nobody's fool.

Hers is a family marked by tragedy. Her mother died when Mercy was a child, killed by a panicked Thoroughbred. Ever since, the trauma of finding her mother dead has prevented her from ever riding again – until forced to do so to deliver a ransom package in the final scenes of the novel.

The younger sister accidentally killed a playmate in a gun accident. She is forever after labeled crazy.
A family friend begs Mercy to solve the murder of her son, a friend of Mercy's nephew, Levi. The friend's trust is mainly based in the fact that Mercy's father had been the local sheriff. Her father had hand-picked his successor, Dawson, who had yet to win over the locals as far as convincing them of his effectiveness.

Mercy seems to spend a lot more time in bars getting hammered than in hammering away at the suspects till they crack and spill the beans. In one such incident, she winds up spending the night with a stranger, and another night with the sheriff. Woo-ha, this girl is cruising for an emotional bruising.

In only one incident of her threatening another resident, is she taken into custody – not at all realistic, dear readers.
Another sour note in the plot involves her dear sister going into the hospital with a concussion, yet Mercy does not visit her even once while she is in the hospital. This lapse is not addressed in the novel.

So anyway, while Mercy's skills as a markswoman are admittedly impressive, her chops as a would-be shamus leave something to be desired. She questions two young people involved in a local young warriors group, who supposedly work on reviving tribal rituals and traditions – but the two interviews are widely spaced in the novel, with lots of drinking and sorting out family secrets and fighting off land developers in between.

There are lots of threads in the novel's fabric: sibling history, family tragedies, war flashbacks that plague Mercy's dreams, the pressure from developers who would mean displacing whole communities as the land got too valuable to hold onto, unraveling family secrets, and overcoming a personal phobia about horses. A bit too much bitten off by the author to chew properly, in my humble opinion. But an interesting stew from which further novels draw upon.

The main character, Mercy, is a bit too troubled, cynical, sarcastic, and raw of nerve to want for your very own BFF, but I suppose she will do as a multi-layered protagonist.

NO MERCY, by Lori Armstrong, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010, 305 pages. ISBN 9781416590958.

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