Behind The Book: John Burley

John Burley & Lorie GearhartWant a recipe for the making of a chilling medical thriller? Start with an emergency medicine physician with an inclination for writing tales of psychological suspense. Add a forensic psychiatrist with an interest in the minds of sociopaths. Mix well until the two are married, and what you end up with is John Burley and Lorie Gearhart, a pair of physicians whose training and experience have brought them face-to-face with some of the darkest aspects of human nature. Now sprinkle in an obsession with crafting a story about a pathologist in a small Midwestern town plagued by a serial killer, and the end result is John Burley’s debut novel THE ABSENCE OF MERCY.

The book merges the genres of medical thriller, crime, murder mystery, and psychological suspense,” Burley says. “It’s an eerie, nail-biting ride through a quiet suburban community full of unsettling secrets.”

The setting is the town of Wintersville, a place where neighbors feel more like family, where the chief of police knows the residents by name, and where the sound of children’s laughter echoes along the neighborhood streets as the evening sun settles on the horizon. But when a brutally murdered teenager is discovered in the woods not far from his own home, pathologist Ben Stevenson becomes enmeshed in an investigation that forces him to weigh his professional obligations against the safety of his family, to explore the secrets of the community in which he lives, and ultimately to confront a truth that will haunt him forever.

As a practicing emergency medicine physician, Burley brings a level of realism to the medical scenes. The reader is taken inside of the Emergency Department, the ICU, and the Medical Examiner’s Office for an unblinking first-hand look at the sort of cases physicians deal with on a daily basis.

I tried to convey the intensity of these environments and how they affect the people working there,” John explains. “Physicians dedicate their lives to relieving human suffering, but they seldom talk about their own suffering, about how the practice of medicine grabs hold of you and never lets go. The long hours, the time spent away from family, the patient you were unable to save despite your best efforts—it all takes a toll. In the end, we’re as human as everyone else.”

In a recent Q&A with bestselling author William Landay, Burley was asked if having a forensic psychiatrist for a wife was helpful in developing his characters. “Immensely,” he said. “The story involves a serial killer who terrorizes a small town. We tend to think of such individuals as extremely rare. But many serial killers are sociopaths, and what I learned through discussion with my wife is that sociopaths are present in almost all communities. About 4% of men and 1% of women fit the diagnostic criteria. They frequently blend in to the community, and are harder to identify than one might imagine. Not all sociopaths become serial killers, of course, but for many of them the potential is there. If that doesn’t make you lock your doors at night, I don’t know what will.”

Such topics make for interesting fodder at the dinner table. Lorie divides her work week between a private practice, an inpatient psychiatric unit, the County jail, and the conduction of forensic psychiatric evaluations for the judicial system. John, on the other hand, works at a busy urban trauma center and writes twisted psychological thrillers on his days off. “In the evenings, we compare notes to see who had a stranger day,” he reports.

In preparation for Halloween three years ago, Lorie hung a sign on the front door that read ‘Insane Asylum.’

The weird thing is,” John comments, “it’s still there. She never took it down.”

John Burley

John Burley worked as a paramedic and firefighter before attending medical school in Chicago and completing an emergency medicine residency at University of Maryland Medical Center and Shock Trauma in Baltimore.  His debut novel, THE ABSENCE OF MERCY, received the NationalBlackRibbonAward, which recognizes a novelist who brings a fresh voice to suspense writing.  He currently lives in Northern California with his wife, daughter, Great Dane, and English Bulldog. To learn more, visit his website at