(Editor’s note: This review comes from Steven Nester, host of Poets of the Tabloid Murder, a weekly Internet radio show heard on the Public Radio Exchange [PRX]. Nester is also a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Rap Sheet, Mystery Scene and Firsts Magazine.)
The decades after America’s Civil War were brutal, especially in the border states where North and South bore murderous grudges and roving gangs pillaged dirt-poor towns ruled by anarchy. In 1882, in a hamlet “crammed into a mountain face of West Virginia,” three outlaws set in motion an apocalyptic showdown between a syphilitic street preacher turned demagogue, his troop of obedient miscreants and a sheriff attempting to bring justice to a lawless land. By the time the carnage ends, the town of Mercy, Kentucky, will have lent its name to a band of misfits in a way that reaffirms a basic humanity uncommon in the bloodiest era of U.S. history.
In Jonathan Ashley’s most recent work, Out of Mercy (280 Steps), outlaw Tompal Banks’ two sidekicks are a runaway slave named Cody Williams and a young mute woman. The latter’s face is tattooed and her tongue was ripped from her mouth by Apache slavers, so it’s not difficult to understand her propensity for taking scalps. These three steal a cache of arms in which Tanner, the local sheriff, has an interest. Tanner challenges the trio after they kill two would-be rapists, and is shot dead by Tompal. The band then find themselves on the lam, bound for Mercy, where they become the fulcrum between justice and revenge.
Mercy owes its peace and order to the Reverend Thurman. A “peddler of faith,” he’s cleaned the streets of reprobates and criminals by bringing them into his church, enabling the town and local businesses to operate with a modicum of stability. The particularly pernicious and speciously converted outlaw family of Erastus Miller and his sons use the Reverend as a front for their own enterprises; and the Reverend is too busy chasing down the devil to question them or their generous tithing. The powers that be in Mercy are grateful to Thurman, but are also afraid of him and the power he wields.
The breather Tompal and his cohorts enjoy in Mercy is cut short when Tanner’s brother and sister-in-law track them down. Geraldine Tanner subsequently kills her husband by accident, but blames it on Tompal. Author Ashley is able to make death a simple thing of beauty in this very violent book where the blood sometimes is splattered as if by Jackson Pollock with a .44. “Clyde’s left thigh exploded with a crack into a rosebud of muscle and artery,” he writes, and while there is much violence here, the gore is never superfluous.
Mercy’s marshal, Don Hayes, is a beaten alcoholic whose ears still seem to ring from Yankee cannon fire. Haunted by his mercy killing during the war of his oldest friend; humiliated by a cuckolding wife who abandoned him with his son, Hayes has little to live for. Though Tompal is wanted for murder in West Virginia, Hayes is skeptical of his guilt in Mercy, and is determined that the trio should face due process – much against the wishes of the town fathers, who’d rather let them disappear into the fog. Hayes confronts Tompal on the muddy streets of Mercy as the outlaw and his gang prepare to leave town, but Tompal gets the jump on the marshal, disgracing him, sparing his life, but not preventing Hayes from getting to his feet and tracking them down.
By the time Hayes returns with Tompal and his partners in tow, Geraldine Tanner has been fully converted by Thurman’s fire-and-brimstone gospel, and she joins the pitchfork-wielding mob hungry for vengeance. Erastus Miller and his boys are all for stringin’ ’em up as well, for they know about and want their hands on the stolen arsenal, and they don’t mind if an angry mob does their dirty work for them.
Dispossessed by the South and reviled by Yankees, former slave Cody Williams sees no purpose in a fight he knows he’s destined to lose, whether he’s right or wrong. To him the Civil War was the worst thing that could’ve happened. “The war wasn’t about no slaves or right or wrong,” Cody says. “It was about rich assholes getting richer. And who do you think died so that could happen?” The war was a “rigged deck,” and his premonition of a dark future for himself as a freeman comes to fruition when the Reverend Thurman grabs him. Meanwhile, the mute — a woman who’s considered soiled and a pariah by even the lowest level of white society — has no real choice but to wander the country in limbo beside her guide and protector, Tompal, who seems to know much about her even though she can’t speak. These are the people Tompal considers family, something which Marshal Hayes can appreciate, having lost his and never bothering to find another.
The emotional power in Out of Mercy comes from Ashley’s ability to make Banks, Williams and the mute worthy of sympathy. They are armed and dangerous, and killing is a last resort; but they are playing by the rules — or perhaps the lack of rules — in an era and an area where decency seems to have been forgotten. Regardless of their transgressions, those three are worthy of justice.
In a denouement worthy of Sam Peckinpah, Hayes and his deputies, along with a brothel full of whores, are pitted against Thurman’s church and Erastus Miller. To survive, they must all cooperate with Tompal and the always-listening mute. Without a trace of sentimentality, they forge a strained alliance, teaching the hardened Hayes a powerful lesson in the grace of forgiveness when acting out of mercy. ◊