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This reading group guide forMercilessincludes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Lori Armstrong. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In Merciless, newly minted FBI agent Mercy Gunderson is investigating her first murder case, working in conjunction with the tribal police on the Eagle River Reservation, where the victim is the teenage niece of the recently elected tribal president. When another gruesome killing occurs during the early stages of the investigation, Mercy finds herself torn between her duty to the FBI and her obligations to those she loves, including her fiancé, Eagle River County sheriff Mason Dawson.
When hidden political agendas and old family vendettas turn ugly, masking motives and causing a rift between the tribal police, the tribal council, and the FBI, Mercy discovers that the deranged killer has his sights set on her as his next victim. In order to save herself and protect her family, Mercy must unleash the cold, dark, efficient killer inside her to become the predator rather than the prey.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Describe Special Agent Mercy Gunderson’s relationship with her FBI colleague, Special Agent Shay Turnbull. How does it change throughout the course of the novel?
2. “I was only a quarter Minneconjou Sioux, which was just enough to slightly darken my skin tone and lighten my hair color to light brown.” How much does Mercy’s Native American heritage help or hinder her in her official and unofficial interactions on the Eagle River Reservation? Consider her interactions with Fergie, Tribal President Latimer Elk Thunder, Rollie Rondeaux, and Saro.
3. “For most traditional Indian families, an autopsy is considered a desecration of the body and the spirit. Especially in children.” In what other ways do Special Agents Mercy Gunderson and Shay Turnbull accommodate native traditions and beliefs in their federal investigation into the murders? How does Shay interpret the tribal police’s efforts to find the serial killer on the reservation? To what extent do his views differ from Mercy’s feelings about the tribal police?
4. How does the nondisclosure rule, which prevents Dawson and Mercy from discussing criminal cases of mutual interest to the agencies where they work, impact their relationship throughout the novel? Do you think it contributes to Mercy’s final decision to go after the killer, and do you think this rule has merit for couples? Why or why not?
5. Describe Mercy and Dawson’s first hunt together. To what extent is this outing typical of their domestic interactions?
6. How do Mercy’s abilities and interests set her apart as a unique sort of heroine in Merciless?
7. How does Mason’s rodeo accident transform Mercy’s relationships with Mason’s son, Lex, and with her FBI colleague, Shay Turnbull?
8. Mercy chooses to pursue the killer independently without first disclosing their identity to Shay Turnbull or anyone else at the FBI or tribal police. How does the successful outcome of her pursuit call into question her ethical judgment? Did this decision impact your opinion of her as a character?
9. How did you feel when you discovered the killer’s identity? Given the many suspects put forth by Mercy and Shay, which seemed most plausible to you and why?
10. “I’d take this new normalcy in my life for as long as I could get it.” Though the book closes on a positive note, Armstrong gives readers the opportunity to use their imaginations in thinking about what might be next for Mercy. Describe Mercy’s “new normal” at the end of Merciless, and predict how her future relationships might be affected by the events of this book. Consider Dawson, John-John, Lex, and Shay, especially.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. As Mercy begins to unravel the secrets of tribal members of the Eagle River Reservation, she uncovers stories from the past that have been concealed to protect reputations and family legacies. Contact family members or friends and compose an oral history of a meaningful, controversial, or confusing event in your past. What surprising explanations are offered by others that shed light on your relationships? Share your findings with your book club.
2. At Mercy and Dawson’s party to welcome Dawson’s young son, Lex, relations and acquaintances from different parts of their professional and personal lives intersect, some uncomfortably. At what venues and events do the people who comprise your daily life—family, colleagues, childhood friends, neighbors, estranged companions—overlap? You may want to compare experiences with book club members of reunions or gatherings that were notable in terms of bringing out the best and worst in your circle of relationships.
3. Mercy and Dawson seem both competitive and admiring about their respective talents and abilities. When they hunt for antelope, for example, each acknowledges the other’s unique strengths. Can you think of a person or people in your life that you admire for his or her special gifts? How do their abilities balance against your own? Explore this dynamic with members of your book group. Whom do they admire and how does this impact the way they interact with one another?
4. Learn about the author, Lori Armstrong, by visiting her online at: http://www.loriarmstrong.com, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lori-Armstrong/420276695091, or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LoriGArmstrong.
A Conversation with Lori Armstrong
Mercy’s appreciation for weaponry definitely falls into the category of near obsession. Can you describe your own experience with and knowledge of guns?
My experience with guns is limited to working in the family gun business in the accounting department for a decade. However, my husband still makes his living in the firearms business, so I’m lucky enough to be able to pick his brain when I need to. He handles lots of cool firearms on a daily basis, which I remind myself would be Mercy’s dream job.
An unlikely character turns out to be a serial killer and predator in Merciless, but the murderer’s identity remains a mystery until quite late in the novel. Tell us a bit more about how you plan your books. At what point in your plotting the novel did you know who the killer would be?
That’s the one thing I do know when I start a book—who the villain is. The rest of it . . . comes while I’m writing. I usually know the eight to ten black moments, or turning points, in the story before I start it. And I’m constantly surprised by how much ends up in the book that I didn’t plan for. Characters show up on the page, or I kill off a character I hadn’t intended to. So to some extent it’s as much a discovery process for me as a writer as it is for the reader. I figure if I’m surprised then readers will be too.
Mercy Gunderson is an extremely open protagonist—unapologetic about her drinking, honest about her isolationist tendencies, straightforward about her physical needs. What is your favorite part about writing her?
I love when Mercy shows me a glimpse of humor. The darkness and lone-wolf attitude are an innate part of her and are expected, given her background. But it’s those moments when we see her sense of humor, or when she tosses off a one-liner that amuse me, because it isn’t something I plan. It just happens.
Does Mercy still surprise you as a character? What was the biggest “surprise” she shocked you with in Merciless?
Yes, Mercy still makes me scratch my head on occasion. The fact that Mercy showed a domestic side and that she liked it was a surprise to me. She has nurturing tendencies, but she’s not had a lot of opportunities to act on them, so her relationship with Lex was a lot easier than I’d thought it would be. Easier, not to write, but easier to believe because we’ve only seen the barest glimpses of her around children. She’s not afraid of kids, but she’s afraid of getting too close and losing that connection again like she did with Levi. So I was happy she bucked up to the challenge of Lex living with them, right from the start.
As an author, how difficult was it for you to inhabit some of the “darkness” Mercy has to grapple with in this book? Did it feel like a natural progression from the first two books in this series?
I feel Mercy has adjusted more to civilian life in this book, so she naturally has fewer dark edges—that she lets show—because she isn’t dealing with horrific death up close in her face every day like she was during her military service. It’s important for me to show that Mercy isn’t the clichéd army vet who drinks too much and constantly shoves away everyone who cares about her. The fact that she is in a long-term relationship with Dawson, and she accepts Lex will be in their lives, and she’s changed the dynamics of her relationship with both her sister Hope and Jake, proving she wants to be a part of something again.
You’ve written before about how the racial and cultural diversity of western South Dakota is very much a part of everyday life, both for you as a resident and for your characters. Still, how intensive was your research into Sioux culture and customs?
Not too much for this book, since it deals more heavily with Mercy’s new job with the FBI. That entailed much more research, since jurisdictional issues on Indian reservations and the local, state, and federal law enforcement problems arising from those restrictions play such a key role in the book. The one advantage I have in writing Mercy is that she doesn’t know how to be Indian any more than I do, so it’s an ongoing learning process for both of us.
Much of this book deals with Mercy’s struggle to find balance, especially between her work obligations and her family. As a full-time writer who is also a wife and mother, do you identify with this struggle?
I think everyone identifies with the need to find balance. My deadlines have been pretty brutal the last few years and my family has been patient with my lack of balance. Luckily my kids are mostly grown and the one who is still at home is very busy and self-sufficient. But I remember when the kids were Lex’s age and how much juggling school and activities and family time were part of our everyday life, as well as trying to find personal adult time, because that’s usually one of the first things to go. Both Mercy and Dawson are aware that Lex living with them can change their personal dynamic and they’re willing to adjust their lives, but not give up part of who they are to each other.
You also write a bestselling erotic romance series under the pseudonym Lorelei James. What are the major differences for you in writing your cowboy romances versus the Mercy Gunderson mystery series? Do you see a lot of overlap between mystery and romance?
Both mystery and romance have to have a plot, conflict, character growth, and a satisfying ending. So in that respect the story lines are similar. At this point in time, I write mystery in the first person, and it’s challenging to write a hundred-thousand-word book from one character’s point of view. I write romance in the third person, usually around a hundred thousand words also, but in multiple points of view, so the story gets told from various angles, which isn’t necessarily easier, just different. In the mysteries the plot is about the character’s relationship to violence. In the romances the plot is about the character’s relationship to sex. I find it fascinating that mystery readers don’t have a problem with explicit violence, but throw in explicit sex . . . and they run for the hills. I like the challenge of writing both the best aspect of humanity—love, sex and finding happily ever after—and the worst aspect—dealing with violence, hatred, and what makes a person act on those murderous impulses.
We won’t ask you to pick favorites, but if you could bring one of your characters from this series to life to spend a day with, who would it be, and what would you do?
I’d pick Mercy and make her take me out shooting. I need help in learning how to ease back slowly on that trigger, every time, with every type of gun. Plus, I think she’d be fun to drink with afterward.
Where do you see Mercy’s story going next?
Good question. I leave her a little unsettled at the end of Merciless, wondering if she’ll continue with the FBI or if she’ll find another challenge. I can say I’m kicking ideas around, but the truth is Mercy hasn’t told me what she wants to do yet.
Lori Armstrong is the two-time winner of the Shamus Award given by the Private Eye Writers of America and a New York Times bestselling author of romantic fiction, written as Lorelei James. Her books have won the Willa Cather Literary Award and have been nominated for the High Plains Book Award and the Daphne du Maurier Award. She lives in western South Dakota. Visit her website at LoriArmstrong.com.