Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (Harper Collins, 2016)

In James Patterson's Master Class, an online course which I recommend highly to aspiring authors, Patterson talks about the validity of writing with a partner. Patterson notes several well respected creative teams like Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkle, and explains that combining the creative juices of two people is a great and productive idea. No where in the writing of crime fiction is that more true than in the case of Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass, pen-name Jefferson Bass, who have been collaborating on the Body Farm series for ten years.

The theme of Without Mercy is contemporary and biting. The initial crime that Dr. Bill Brockton, forensic anthropologist and founder of the innovative and educational Body Farm on the University of Tennessee campus, must solve is a horrific hate crime. An unidentified victim has been tied to a tree out in the wilderness, kept alive and tortured for weeks, and ultimately smeared with bacon fat and left as bear bait. The scattered bones have been found in Cook County, not far from the UT campus, and are brought for examination to Brockton's lab.

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With the assistance of his graduate assistant, Miranda, on whom Brockton has come to depend heavily for her insights in the study of forensics, the pair make dark and disturbing discoveries. After painstakingly putting together the shattered femur of the victim, Brockton and Miranda discern that the victim is young, male, and may be African American. A broken coin necklace found at the scene further points to the possibility that the perpetrator is a white supremacist. The forensic team work feverishly to identify the victim and to ascertain the identity of the killer who devised such a cruel and torturous death.

As Brockton, a lonely widower, is working on this disturbing case, an even darker twist comes into play. Nick Satterfield, a serial killer who has been imprisoned for twenty years and blames Brockton for his demise, has escaped from prison, taking out a doctor, an emergency ambulance attendant, and members of their families during his flight. The FBI, local police, and Brockton's team realize that Satterfield could never have orchestrated such an escape alone, and that the vindictive and crazed monster will be seeking revenge on the man he deems responsible for putting him behind bars. Together the law enforcement agencies try to puzzle out who are Satterfield's accomplices and how best to protect Brockton and his loved ones.

In her research into hate crimes, the brilliant Miranda who has now finished her doctoral thesis and is looking to spread her wings and leave her post as Brockton's right hand to work for the FBI, locates disturbing video and racist commentary on the darkest websites of the internet. She and Brockton talk about the increasing venom being spread throughout the country. Miranda comments, “All these race-baiting, race-hating posts---some about blacks, some about Jews, but more and more in the past year, about Muslims.”

Brockton nodded. “It does seem like we've turned some kind of corner since the San Bernardino and Paris shootings.”

“And since Donald Trump made racism and fascism seem patriotic,” she said, her voice venomous. (p. 194)

The thread of hate crime is carried even into one of Brockton's classes at the university, when one of his students openly taunts a Muslim girl in class. Brockton seizes the moment to teach his students about dignity, forgiveness, and human understanding. The moment, although tense and deeply upsetting, illustrates how we, in a free society, can build understanding by treating one another with dignity, rather than hatred. Jefferson Bass have incorporated a “teachable moment” that underscores the powerful theme of Without Mercy.

As with all of the books in the Body Farm series, this one is a page turner that must be devoured in one or two sittings. For crime buffs, those who thrive on television shows like Criminal Minds, NCIS, and CSI, the Without Mercy is a must read.