Mercy at Midnight - Sylvia Bambola

Cynthia Wells, an undercover reporter with a dark secret and in search of a story, finds more than she bargains for, including a love she never expected. Jonathan Holms, pastor of affluent Christ Church, is stunned when God directs him to a mission where he must come to grips with a killer and his own difficult past. Stubby White was never anything and he was sure he'd never be anything, not with all the bad breaks he's had. But at the Beacon Mission, when he finds the promise of a new life, he must decide whether to dwell in the past or break from it. All three are thrown together by converging circumstances involving danger and a mysterious killer who seems bent on destroying them all.

~from back cover




Cynthia Wells is an undercover newspaper reporter, her journalistic pieces typically focusing on scams and scandals within business and politics. A series of suspiciously close together deaths within town -- two homeless men and one church pastor -- has her itching to look into the matter even though most around her are telling her there's probably no meat in that story. Wells, recently plagued by the most disturbing of nightmares, stubbornly pushes through those who would block the truth of the matter. The more details Cynthia uncovers, the more she begins to see just how much is at stake should she tell what she knows, and how much danger she actually stands to face.


Meanwhile, Pastor Jonathan Holms feels compelled by God to leave his thriving congregation for a new venture not immediately known. That is, until he finds himself driven to spend a night in a local homeless shelter. His experience inspires him to start up his own shelter, though where the funds for that (keeping the shelter up and running long-term, that is) will come from is anyone's guess. But as they say, where there's a will, there's a way. One of the first visitors to Jonathan's new shelter is a homeless man by the name of Stubby White. Stubby quickly finds the shelter to be a place of solace, somewhere he can hide from those who killed his friends -- and seem to find him a threat as well -- and a place he can escape from his drug-fueled mistakes of the past. Cynthia, acting undercover as a homeless woman who prefers to remain silent about her past, is also soon taken in at the shelter. Cynthia, Stubby and Jonathan, along with the elderly cook Miss Emily and the daycare attendant Effie, all form a makeshift family. And like most any family you know, there's a secret or three between all these people threatening to come to light. One especially potent one surprisingly links Cynthia to Stubby. But what helps this family of sorts pull through is the realization that all of them have found a level of caring and acceptance among each other that they've never felt anywhere else before. 


I've become quite the fan of Bambola's novels since first discovering her a couple years ago, but I have to say this was not one of my favorites. Don't get me wrong though, there's still a decent, heartfelt story here... it just happened to not move me quite as deeply as some of her other works. The plot felt like it had a slower pace than her previous books. There are still moments of action but they are much more spaced out and there was a lot of jumping around between scenes here that I found a bit jarring to read. The characters, while good and life-like... there was just something there that felt underdeveloped to me... couldn't quite pinpoint what it was exactly, these characters just didn't linger in my memory the way some of her past characters have.


I think I most liked the sweet, grateful spirit of Effie and the warmth and wisdom of Miss Emily. I also liked that the humor of Jonathan's Aunt Adel gave a balance of lightness to some of the heavier themes in the novel. You gotta love a character who refuses to accept defeat, only answering with that knowing, smirky, "We shall see what we shall see..." I wasn't sure what to make of Stubby in the beginning but he came to really grow on me with his gentle ways and child-like spirit. Perhaps one of the toughest characters for me to pin down was the cop, Steve, Cynthia's "friends with benefits" fella. Some moments he was a huge, testosterone pumped douche wagon around her... other times he seemed like he genuinely wanted to do right by her. Just left me confused as to what to think about him. 


Bambola tries to write in a little almost-romance between Cynthia and Jonathan, but it doesn't necessarily play a pivotal role in the storyline. The bond between them also struck me as a little lukewarm when compared to how Bambola has written her couples in the past. To see what I mean, I'd recommend checking out her historical fiction pieces, The Salt Covenants or The Daughters of Jim Farrell


I can't say if it was intentional or not, as Bambola doesn't say anything about this in her afterword, but I did notice some similarities between the backstory of Pastor Jonathan and that of St. Francis of Assisi. Like St. Francis, Jonathan comes from a wealthy family, but driven by a spiritual calling that refuses to be silenced, chooses to leave a respectable position in the community to take up work with the homeless. Not everyone understands or approves of his chosen path. At one point, Jonathan is even told flat out that one can pity the swine without getting in the pen and becoming one of them... something very similar to what St. Francis' father told him when St Francis continually gave up earthly possessions to humble himself. 


Bambola is much more heavy-handed with the religious aspects in this novel than in some of her past works. This could either turn off more secular readers or, if said reader is finding themselves increasingly curious about theology, this novel might be instead a beginning bit of food for thought. Either way, it proves to be a nicely balanced piece of social commentary on love, acceptance, and empathy (particularly with the less fortunate in mind) blended with a decent murder mystery / crime fiction. I personally may be more drawn to Bambola's historical fiction pieces but I'll certainly never turn down a chance to check out her modern fiction as well! 


FTC & Heritage Publishing House kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book with a request that I might check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.