Review: Real and emotional prisons flow through ‘No Mercy’

“No Mercy” (Minotaur), by Joanna Schaffhausen

Prisons come in various forms, as Joanna Schaffhausen shows in her second outstanding novel, “No Mercy.” There are the mortar-and-brick prisons in which criminals are housed, such as the serial killer who kidnapped and tortured Ellery Hathaway. And there are mental prisons where survivors of violent crimes, such as Ellery, are relegated against their will because of memories or fear that their attacker is free or will be released.

Real and emotional prisons flow through “No Mercy.” Ellery at age 14 was kidnapped and tortured by serial killer Francis Coben, now in prison. She was the only victim to survive Coben because she was rescued by FBI profiler Reed Markham. Emotionally, Ellery is still locked in that closet, fearful, as if those 15 years have never passed.

Ellery changed her name, reinvented herself and established a solid career as a police officer in Woodbury, Massachusetts. But the past always lurks behind her, and she is now on involuntary leave after shooting a murderer. Her story continues to be fodder for movies, TV shows, articles and mail from those who revere her for surviving another predator and those who criticize her for surviving. Temporarily living in Boston, she sees a court-appointed psychiatrist who has her attending group therapy with other victims of violent crimes in the hope of getting her job back.

Trying to keep her problems from the group, Ellery becomes intrigued with the stories of two members. Wendy Mendoza wants Ellery to try to find who raped her eight months ago, especially since the police investigation has stalled. As she looks into the attack on Wendy, Ellery becomes interested in the background of Myra Gallagher whose 4-year-old son died in an arson fire more than 20 years before, leaving her badly burned.

Ellery asks Reed for help because she cannot officially investigate either case. Their shared history bound them together but “No Mercy” finds Ellery and Reed drawing closer together.

Schaffhausen takes advantage of her second novel to delve deeper into Ellery, realistically showing how her past continues to control her life. She will forever be known as “the girl who got away.” She has no real friends and doesn’t date so she will never have to explain her past. Her closest companion is Bump, her loving basset hound. Ellery wants justice for herself and other crime victims, yet is fully aware that she and others in her situation will never be the same.

“No Mercy” illustrates an increased skill at storytelling that Schaffhausen showed in her excellent 2017 debut, “The Vanishing Season,” the 2016 winner of the First Crime Novel Competition by Minotaur Books and the Mystery Writers of America’s First Crime Novel Award.

A long-running series with Ellery will be most welcomed.