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IN SEARCH OF MERCY by Michael Ayoob: Book Review

Dexter Bolzjak was a Pittsburgh high school ice hockey phenom. College scouts came to see him play in goal, and the night of the state championship was his golden opportunity to shine.  The score was zero-zero in the third period when slap, slap, slap–three goals slid past Bolzjak in the final eight minutes.  That was the end of his dream of a college scholarship, but his night only got worse from that point on.

Years later, when we meet Bolzjak, his mother is long gone; he hasn’t spoken to his father, who lives in the same neighborhood as he does, for six years; he works in a vegetable market separating good onions from bad ones; and he lives in a windowless basement in the house of his only friend.  Not much of a life.

Michael Ayoob’s first novel takes the reader to some very, very dark places. The night he lost the game was the night Bolzjak realized that his parents were splitting up and the night that he was abducted by four masked men and sodomized.  Not surprisingly, his life went downhill from then on.

While Bolzjak is eating lunch one day at a restaurant, in walks Lou Kashon, part-owner of a Pittsburgh food warehouse.  With bloodshot eyes and filthy clothes, Kashon doesn’t look like a man who has either self-respect or money.  But he lays a $100 bill in front of Bolzjak and walks out.  The next day Bolzjak sees him again, and this time Kashon tells him to come by his house–he’s got a job for him.

Bolzjak already has two jobs, to his way of thinking.  Number 2 is his job at the veggie warehouse; number 1 is building a shelter of straw, sticks, and bricks to keep himself from remembering the night of his attack and its aftermath.

And the job Kashon wants Boljzak to take is anything but simple. He tells Bolzjak that years ago, just before World War II, he was in love with a local girl and she with him.  They were engaged, and she was going to wait for him to come home from overseas.  The local girl didn’t stay local for long, though, and she didn’t wait.  She changed her name from Agnes Zabrowski to Mercy Carnahan and became one of Hollywood’s most famous movie stars.  She was glamorous, sexy, mysterious–all the things that made an actress a star in the 1940s and ’50s.  And then she walked off a stage and disappeared, and no one has heard from her or seen her since.  Certainly not Lou Kashon.

Now he wants Bolzjak to find Mercy Carnahan. Although Kashon lives in a house with holes in the floors, filthy dishes in the sink, and dead cats in the freezer, he also has a drawer full of money in his bedroom.  Find Mercy Carnahan, he tells Bolzjak, and it’s all yours.

In Search of Mercy is a novel of self-discovery, as well as a mystery.  It’s the story of Dexter Bolzjak trying to come to terms with why his life has gone so far off the rails.  Has he been using the horrific events of the championship night as an excuse to do the things he’s done–drop out of school, estrange himself from his father, lose a relationship because of the nightmares that have lingered for years and for which he refuses to get help?  Or is all that simply beyond his ability to change?

Michael Ayoob’s novel is a voyage that is dark, dark, dark. It takes the reader into places that are truly uncomfortable, not only for his hero but for other characters in the book as well.  But it’s well worth the trip.  In Search of Mercy won the 2009 Private Eye Writers of America award for best first private eye novel.

You can read more about Michael Ayoob at his web site.

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