Clark's latest rivals Christie's best

July 28, 2009 8:22:40 AM PDT
Some thrillers end with a suicide. In Mary Jane Clark's latest novel, "Dying for Mercy," everything begins with one. Review: AP Photo NYET928 By WAKA TSUNODA Associated Press Writer

Innis Wheelock is the husband of former New York Gov. Valentina Wheelock, an ambassador to Italy. While living in Rome, Innis becomes obsessed with St. Francis of Assisi, and decides he must repent for "ugly things" he's done for his wife's political success.

After they return to the exclusive neighborhood of Tuxedo Park, N.Y., he renovates their house to his specifications, renaming it Pentimento, which comes from pentire, the Italian word for repent. He then hosts a party in honor of St. Francis, but before it ends, Innis is found dead. He has stabbed himself in the hands, feet and left side, in the pattern of Christ's stigmata.

His guests at the party include Eliza Blake, co-host of a popular TV show. She recalls a cryptic remark that he made to her earlier that evening: "You care about right and wrong. I know you do." Although she has no idea what he meant, she takes photos of the scene with her cell phone.

While examining the photos later, Annabelle Murphy and B.J. D'Elia, Blake's colleagues at the broadcast network, discover the first clue to the intricate puzzle that Innis built into Pentimento's architecture.

As in any good murder mystery, there's someone who doesn't want the puzzle solved - or long-buried secrets revealed. This shadowy figure begins bumping off potential threats in a grisly manner that mirrors Innis' obsession with religion.

As Agatha Christie did with her classic "And Then There Were None," Clark, who worked as a producer-writer at CBS News headquarters in Manhattan before turning to writing full-time, deftly combines the clue-searching and puzzle-solving fun of mysteries with the action-packed, emotion-driven narrative thrust of thrillers.

Her short, to-the-point chapters, lucid prose, numerous suspects and faceless murderer's creepy monologues keep the suspense at its chilliest level - and move the story forward at a brisk clip. "Dying for Mercy" is one of Clark's - and the genre's - best.

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