Sunday, March 27, 2016


THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY by Wiley Cash (Doubleday, 2014)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Easter and Ruby are two sisters living in foster care thanks to their mother's drug overdose, when their loser Dad turns up and spirits them away. Meanwhile a psychopathic ex-con gets a chance to settle old scores when he's hired to do a job. The target should be easy enough to track: after all, he's just kidnapped his own daughters from foster care. 

Evocative. If I had to pick one word that comes to mind when I think of Wiley Cash's outstanding sophomore novel, it would be evocative. There is so much to like about this book, especially if you're a fan - as I am - of well-crafted Southern gothic thrillers, tales of broken and bedraggled working-class people who've faced tough lives and are clawing for something better for those they care about in the contradictory gumbo that is the American South.

This Dark Road to Mercy is pungent in its expression of character and hard-scrabble life in the Carolinas. Cash conjures genuine feeling in the reader as we follow the tale of Easter and Ruby, two young girls who've already suffered much in their lives and are not sure what to cling to or who to trust. Planted in foster care in Gastonia, a town near the Appalachians, the sisters feel orphaned. Their father Wade, a minor league baseball player, left years ago and has signed away his rights, and their mother died of a drug overdose. Easter, the older sister, discovered her mother's body.

When their father unexpectedly comes back into their lives, the girls have mixed feelings. Understandably. Easter in particular has no trust or faith in Wade, but he seems genuine in wanting to spend time with them. Sorry for his past choices, past mistakes. But having signed away his legal rights, Wade's position in the girls' lives is tenuous at best. Not that he makes that better by spiriting them away from their foster home in the middle of the night. Meanwhile a psychopath who knew Wade back in their baseball days, and blames Wade for things taking a darker turn in his life, gets out of prison and eagerly takes a job that will allow him to exact some vengeance.

This Dark Road to Mercy is a crime tale that seems deceptively simple, but has a lot going on beneath the surface. Cash exquisitely brings his battered characters to full, rounded life. Rather than a complex, intricate plot, he crafts complex characters, and powers the story through the way we engage with them. Hope, disgust, fascination. Cash makes us care, and while his tale of damaged people and a fractured family is lean and mean, it's jam-packed full of heart as well.

I was riveted by the tale of Easter, Ruby, and Wade, and mesmerised by Cash's atmospheric rendering of small-town North Carolina (a place I've spent several summers myself). This Dark Road to Mercy went on to win the CWA Gold Dagger and be shortlisted for the Edgar Award. It is a magnificent piece of crime storytelling, a beautiful book fully deserving of all its accolades and acclaim.

I can't wait to read more from Wiley Cash.

Craig Sisterson is a journalist from New Zealand who writes for a diverse range of magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 140 crime writers, discussed crime fiction onstage at literary festivals and on national radio, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. Follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson 

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