Cruel Mercy - David Mark *****
David Mark doesn't do 'normal' or straightforward crime fiction, does he? That much is evident from the far from typical nature of his main characters and their location in the Humberside Police Force. There's Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy, a red-headed Scotsman of formidable height and build, fiercely determined with a firm moral outlook, but he's also polite, unwilling to offend and a highly sensitive individual. He has the deepest respect and admiration for his tough and uncompromising boss, Trish Pharaoh, who - as we've most recently seen in Dead Pretty, Mark's previous DS McAvoy novel - has something of an unconventional background and complicated family life herself. McAvoy also dotes on his wife, Roisin - a tiny firebrand of Irish Traveller heritage - and his baby daughter.
It's that deep, all-consuming love for his wife that gets McAvoy involved in another case that is far from conventional, but also one that turns out to be a challenge as deadly and out of his league as anything else he has been up against. Travelling to New York, McAvoy is looking for information on the whereabouts of Roisin's missing brother Valentine Teague. Aside from the family connection, there's a lot resting on the success of his investigation, since the two other Irishmen that Valentine went over to America with - a boxing promoter and his latest protégé - have ended up as victims of an apparent mob hit in snow covered woods in a remote part of the state. Brishen Ayres, the promoter, is still alive but in a coma - dubbed a Miracle Man by the press - but Shay Helden is dead and Valentine is missing. Valentine's role in what has happened is a mystery, but the explosive temperamental nature of the young thug is a known problem and it's created great tension in the Traveller community, fuelling family rivalries.
New York is well out of the Humberside Police Detective Sergeant's jurisdiction, so McAvoy has undertaken the trip to America in an unofficial capacity, but he has Trish Pharaoh's blessing and a few NYPD contacts to help him find his way around. It doesn't take long for Aector to realise however that as complicated a business as crime has been in Hull, it's nothing compared to the web of corruption, the inter-gang rivalry and the sheer brutality of a violent underworld that has deep roots in the history of the city. He soon realises he is greatly out of his depth, but the gentle - and sometimes not so gentle - advice and recommendations put his way to not get involved and go back home just make Aector all the more determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and the cover-ups. There are worse things than New York mob affairs to be afraid of back home if he comes back to Roisin without her brother.
How the three Irishmen became mixed up in such a shocking incident while on a boxing try-out is unclear, but the mob connection at least seems evident. It could be the Italians, it could be the Chechens, but no one is going to give McAvoy any information on that as the feud between the rival mobs is in danger of spilling over into all-out warfare. The US authorities are doing their best to keep a lid on the situation, using bribes, informers and inside plants, and they don't need an outsider poking his nose into their business and questioning their methods. It's a familiar fish-out-of-water situation for DS McAvoy, but here he feels even more at a loss than usual and increasingly desperate because of the personal stakes involved. This, of course, is what gives David Marks's DS McAvoy books a real edge, and it's taken to another level here in Cruel Mercy.
As complex as the plot, the characterisation and all the crime and policing methods get, they are all handled deftly by Marks because of this strength of characterisation and the richness of the personalities involved. If there is indeed a lot of cruelty and brutality involved, moral questions which are not clear-cut and policing methods that follow neither the spirit nor the letter of the law, that's because such things become complicated when you apply it to real people and have to deal with situations that are less than ideal. McAvoy's way through the moral maze is to believe in and hold to his dedication to family, for better or worse, and it's surprising just how much of a deep emotional tug this carries, much of it emanating from the extraordinary characterisation of Aector McAvoy.
David Marks recognises however that this cuts both ways, that family counts for everyone else involved here, and it's of course the whole foundation of the mob ethic (if ethics is a word you can use in this context), so what happens is just as important for all of them as it is to McAvoy. While physical strength might end up being the determining factor in Cruel Mercy, it's the strength of character that ultimately affects the nature of the outcome, and you wouldn't bet on anyone having a bigger heart than DS McAvoy. Or fists for that matter.
Cruel Mercy by David Marks is published by Mulholland on 26th January 2017
Cruel Mercy - David Mark *****