Picks and Pans Review: Mercy

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by David Lindsey

There's a serial killer at work in Houston. The murders are all sexually driven and brutal invasions of humanity—the victims are discovered nude, bitten and beaten, perfumed, makeup carefully applied, eyelids slashed. The scent at the crime scenes is strong enough to turn even a veteran cop's stomach, especially a vulnerable homicide detective like Carmen Palma, a divorced survivor of El Barrio.

She is determined to nab her man—or woman. It only takes calls to two murder sites, however, to convince Palma that serial killers inhabit a different mind-set than the other homicidal criminals whose folders have landed on her desk. So, she turns to the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, which profiles serial killers. There, Special Agent Sander Grant tells her about such criminals:

" 'In general, experience tells us that sexual homicides are the exclusive domain of males. There have never been any female sexual killers. All other kinds, yes, but no sexually motivated female killers. So we eliminate half the population right away. Crimes of this nature are overwhelmingly intraracial. Not always, but mostly. So, until we know more, we can consider that we're dealing with a while male.' "

Bolstered by that kind of reality-based insight, Mercy is a top-rank shocker. Lindsey, whose past mysteries (A Cold Mind, In the Lake of the Moon) have shown a sharp sense of detail, here delivers his finest novel.

It is not, by any stretch, a tale for the queasy—the murders are graphically orchestrated and clinically outlined. The sex is plentiful and equally graphic—the victims are upper-class closet lesbians, some of whom have branched out to sadistic adventures. The suspects are many. Could it be the womanizing psychiatrist who, as it happens, is a cross-dresser? Could it be one man linked to all the women? Could it be a first—a female serial killer?

The characters are finely sketched. Pal-ma is a natural, driven to catch the killer as a cop, afraid of what she will find as a woman. Grant is a confident cop, but what happens when his research and the killer he's hunting won't match? The sexually deviant shrink is an utterly repulsive suspect, while the women who end up as victims of the serial killer's wrath are lonely, tormented figures, looking for an end to lives of suffering.

Few will guess the ending. This book is like a roller coaster ride: When it's over, we're glad the tension has been relieved yet sorry there isn't one more precipitous turn. (Doubleday, $19.95)

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