The Quality of Mercy opens in the spring of 1767, two years after the events of Barry Unsworth's Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger. It follows the fortunes of two central characters from that book: Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, the son of a Liverpool slave-ship owner who hanged himself. To avenge his father's death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father's ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy.
But Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing as he goes and sleeping where he can. His destination is Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived. And he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end.
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