Friday, November 11, 2016

Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass: Book Review

Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (William Morrow, Oct. 2016, 352 pages, $21.87/12.99) is a workmanlike detective procedural from the point of view of a forensic anthropologist named Bill Brockton, who teaches at the University of Tennessee. It surprises me that it's the tenth in a series, as it lacks spark and drive, although there's enough veracity in the story and goriness in the details to have kept me reading.

Dr. Bill Brockton, middle-aged Chairman of the UT Anthropology department, long widowed and, apparently, surrounded by younger, attractive, people who keep him socially and intellectually alive, introducing him to new technology as he mentors them in negotiating the halls of academia. He's an amiable, smart, sometime funny sometimes stodgy good man with the right inclinations but not fully up -to-date with the latest technology in his field or the world. As such, he's a person who benefits from the learning of others as he mentors them. Brockton comes across as slightly out of date, but always up to learning, filled with curiosity and broad experience.

Dr. Brockton (almost always using his title as a shield and a billboard) along with his graduate assistant Miranda, who's also his tutor in the ways of the modern world, is called to drive east from Knoxville into Smoky Mountain hollers to investigate a body found by the local sheriff. They discover a badly marred skeleton (the stuff of forensic anthropologists) chained to a tree where a worn path littered with empty food tins marks the torture that must have taken place there. As they examine the scene and the desiccated skeleton, the possibility emerges that there may have been a hate crime here.

Forensic evidence leads Brockton and Miranda to Montgomery Alabama where they visit with Laurie Wood at the Southern Poverty Law Cente who introduces them to white supremacist people and organizations using real people and incidents as examples. I googled a few, just to check, but spent little time in research, because I didn't want to get connected to this particular craziness in Google's mind. It may be too late, which raises the question of whether there can be too much verisimilitude in background info for a crime novel. Sadly, but truly, it also made the book suddenly more intriguing as a mystery and as regards character development. Meanwhile, a convict, imprisoned for twenty years because of evidence Brockton developed, engineers a spectacular and gory escape.

Whether the tone is generally stuffy because that's who Bill Brockton is or because it reflects the writers themselves and their approach to cooperating in writing, I cannot say. Nevertheless, Brockton remains somewhat distanced from the events surrounding him, despite his being central to the plot and the tension the authors seek to develop. At times the narrative seems poised to take off, but as often as not it deflates. When I read thrillers, there often comes a time when I simply can't stop reading because the tension drives me forward. Or, sometimes, I need to put the book down for a few minutes or hours just to maintain some sort of equilibrium, allowing the tension to recede. Neither response was triggered by this novel for me.

Jon Jefferson & Dr. Bill Bass
Jefferson Bass

Jonathan Bass is the pseudonym for the collaboration between professional writer Jon Jefferson and forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, who is a longtime professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee (as is the Dr. Bill Brockton character), and the developer of the real-life laboratory there which has become known as the Body Farm, featured in novels by other writers and a non-fiction book by Jefferson.

I found Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (William Morrow, Oct. 2016, 352 pages, $21.87/12.99) to have an intriguing premise which somehow failed to fully live up to the possibilities it suggested. While the villain was sufficiently villainous, he didn't scare me as much as I felt he should, leading to my disappointment in the novel. Perhaps this series has worn out its welcome, as it is the tenth in a series I had never before encountered. Apparently, the authors agree with me, because, in their afterward, they announce a hiatus of undesignated duration for the series. I read the book on my Kindle App as an Advanced Readers Copy supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss: Above the Treeline.

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