The Mercy Men

by Alan E. Nourse
Reviewed date: 2018 Apr 23
Rating: 2
156 pages
An expanded version of A Man Obsessed
cover art

Jeff Meyer is chasing the man who killed his father. He's dropped out of college and spent the last three years tracking down Conroe, tightening the noose. On the night Jeff finally tries to confront Conroe, he slips away.

Jeff's hired team have every street, every alley, every building covered. There is only one place Conroe could have escaped to: the Hoffman Center. A medical research facility, the Hoffman Center is the world's best hope in a world ravaged first by nuclear war, then viral plagues, and now a mind plague that is scarcely understood but threatens to destroy civilization on Earth. In the deep underground basement levels of the Hoffman Center are rumored to be the Mercy Men, desperate citizens who have volunteered their bodies and their lives to serve as test subjects. Illegal, of course. But necessary because studies with animals can only go so far, and the mind plague is too serious to wait for all the usual niceties of medical ethics. It's full speed ahead with horrific experiments on human subjects. Any who survive (who are few enough) the Center rewards with million-dollar payouts.

Conroe has joined the Mercy Men, it seems. And Jeff is just obsessed enough to follow him.

Once inside the Hoffman Center, Jeff is assigned a room (and a roommate) and told to wait until such time as he is assigned to a study. Jeff has no intention of waiting around--he immediately roams the hallways searching for Conroe.

Here is where we begin to realize that Jeff may not be completely reliable. First, it seems (possibly) that only Jeff has ever seen Conroe, and Conroe is always just out of reach, seen at a distance, always disappears around a corner. Is he even real? And despite Jeff's conviction that Conroe killed his father, we learn that Jeff has no evidence for this belief. Jeff happened to cross paths with Conroe at the college, and upon seeing his face, was overcome by a sudden revelation and conviction that Conroe killed his father. Jeff dropped out of school and spent the next three years tracking down Conroe.

Then things get even weirder. Jeff notices things before they happen. He gets intuitions of future events. He joins his fellow Mercy Men in gambling with cards and dice, and suddenly the probabilities go crazy. He's winning impossibly and all around him other people are getting incredible cards and the dice rolls are coming up winners every time.

Jeff's roommate Blackie reveals that she can manipulate dice with her mind, to make them land the way she wants. It turns out Jeff can do it too, albeit unknowingly.

At this point, I was more than hooked. A clever puzzle, an unreliable narrator, monstrous human experiments, and the survival of human civilization at stake. Wow.

Then it all gets wrapped up in a few long infodumps.

Conroe is real after all. He's working for the Hoffman Center, studying ESP. It turns out that mutants with ESP and telekinetic powers are turning up in the general population, but these powers are always linked with mental insanity. The most dangerous of these mutants was Jacob Meyer, whose insanity and mental powers destabilized financial institutions and stock markets when he simply thought about them. Conroe was obliged to shoot Jacob Meyer in the face, to protect human civilization.

What Conroe didn't know was that Jacob Meyer was telepathically linked to his son Jeff Meyer. The trauma of dying through his father's mind was enough to blot out all of Jeff's childhood memories. Some of those memories were triggered when Jeff accidentally ran into Conroe and saw his face. Jeff thought he was chasing Conroe, but actually Conroe was luring him to the Hoffman Center and the Mercy Men.

Conroe and the doctors at the Hoffman Center explain all this, and explain that if Jeff can help them probe his own mind and locate the center of insanity, they can destroy the insanity but leave the mental powers intact. And with that as a guide, they can treat the hundreds and thousands of other mutants out there. The alternative? The government's fallback plan is to hunt down and murder every mutant.

Apparently Jeff is OK with the fact that Conroe murdered his father by shooting him in the face, because now that he know everything, Jeff is willing and eager to help. He allows the Hoffman Center's doctors to probe his mind, and he guides them to the seed of insanity and they destroy it, burn it away.

Humanity is saved. The end.

About halfway through the book I really thought I was going to like it a lot. But the ending was a letdown.

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