Thursday, September 8, 2011

History and Mystery and Irish, Oh My!

Crawling out from under the bed after the terrifying week here of grit, guns, and gory bodies piling up, I felt the need for a change of pace—a kinder, gentler sort of murder. A very personal murder for very personal reasons that seem perfectly reasonable and justified to the perpetrator. Tea and cozies, anyone? And when I can combine my cozy with a dollop of history in an interesting and unusual setting, well, my hands may stop shaking soon. So please, join me in a cuppa and a lovely trip to 16th century Ireland.

This is the Burren, a hundred-square-mile area of limestone rock on the west coast of Ireland. It consists of broken stone terraces and strange stepped mountains, shaped and polished by the slow dance of ice sheets advancing and retreating over eons. Despite its bleak appearance, it has been occupied continuously for millennia.

In medieval times it was the site of the Cahermacnaghten, Gaelic Ireland's greatest law school; and home in the early 16th century to Brehon (judge) Mara O'Davoren, the unlikely protagonist of Cora Harrison's charming legal procedural, My Lady Judge.

Medieval criminal law in Ireland was concerned with restitution to victims or their families rather than with punishment. There were no prisons; most criminals paid their fines (often with the help of kin) and continued to live in the community. Fines for murder were based on the victim's "face," or the value of his occupation to the community. There were no police; the Brehon of a kingdom was expected to investigate the crime, try it publicly, and assess the fine in accordance with the law. Mara had only the help of one assistant, her students and her Irish wolfhound, Bran, in these efforts.

On Beltane Eve in 1509, Mara sent her scholars off to participate in the lighting of the great fire and subsequent party on the nearby mountaintop, shepherded by her assistant, Colman. She was extremely angry when her students returned in a group unaccompanied by Colman, but assumed he had gone off earlier than planned to visit family in Galway.

But Colman had never left Mullaghmore Mountain on Beltane Eve. His body lay for two days, worried by crows, in a small hollow on the mountain, an ornate dagger that had belonged to her young student Hugh in his neck. Dozens of people must have passed within a few yards on their way down from the festivities. How, Mara wondered, had no one noticed him?

The snippets of Celtic law at the beginning of each chapter are part of the charm of this book. (Imagine, fascinating law!) While it would never work today, it had both more humanity and more social utility than the punitive and expensive English system that was rapidly replacing it. And check out why Mara had been able to divorce her husband and retain the property she had brought to the marriage! Women were well protected under Celtic law, even in the 16th century.

This is a lovely, low-key mystery with a good puzzle at its heart and a twist at the end. The simplicity of the prose highlights the author's obvious love for this barren land and its ancient history. If you are heading for the porch swing or beach, or only wish you were, you could do far worse than take this easy-reading book along. It is as sweet a summer pleasure as a frosty glass of iced tea.


  1. My Lady Judge sounds charming! I've always been fascinated with historical-setting mysteries. My friend from New Mexico tells me that the old Celtic law system is actually fairly similar to that of the Navajo, and still practiced to a degree on the reservations today. Thank you for the recommendation, I'm looking forward to reading it!

  2. Thanks for posting, and for the fascinating information! While I never made the connection, I have always enjoyed Tony Hillerman's series about a pair of Navajo policemen, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. His books, like Harrison's, feel more humane than most crime fiction published today.

    I'd love to hear more about the Navajo system and customs, if your friend would care to stop by.

    Please come back anytime; you have contributed food for thought already this morning!

  3. This sounds MOST interesting! My library has 7 copies and one hold (me!) Can't wait to get it! Thank you for the recommendation.

  4. Hi Kathryn, and thanks! If you enjoy a good puzzle and realistic characters but don't need a thrill a minute and a body every chapter, I think you'll enjoy it.

    Please come back and let us know what you think of it.

  5. Good morning, Kathy, Anonymous and Peri. I love the Tony Hillerman books and am looking forward to reading Harrison's OUR LADY JUDGE. Thanks for telling us about it, Peri. I do like a thrill a minute and watching the bodies fly but I also enjoy less adrenalin-fueled fare. I've been getting into legal mysteries and Harrison's combination of history, murder and law sounds good to me.

    Please let us know what you think about it, Kathy.

    Anonymous, have you read Colin Cotterill's series with Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner of Laos under the communists in the 1970s? It's a wonderful series.

    What historical mysteries do you like? One of my favorites is Iain Pears's non-series book AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST, set in Oxford, England during the Restoration. The multiple point-of-view narration makes the book absorbing.

  6. Interesting. It might be interesting to read after reading Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries which takes place in 7th century Ireland and see how things changed. He said Ireland was a major center of higher education and everyone including women had civil rights that even American women didn't have before the 1960s.

  7. What a terrific blog..and your names are hilarious! I'm an instant fan...thanks!

  8. Oh my goodness, Hank, are you the newscaster? You must know more about crime and malfeasance than any of us. (Hmmm, did that come out quite right?)

    I hadn't realized that you also write mystery novels, but will correct that immediately with a copy of your first, Prime Time.

    Thanks for coming, and please stop back often.

  9. Patg, thanks for posting that great idea.

    Hank, thanks for your kind remarks. We're enjoying our blog. Your Charlie McNally series, about a Boston TV investigative reporter, has a lot of fans, too.

  10. Patg, I have read a few of the Sister Fidelma books and enjoyed them very much. I remember her as very educated, unafraid, and outspoken to all. If you can draw any comparisons between the series, I'd love to hear about it!

  11. Having grown up in Farmington New Mexico, literally a stone's throw away from "The Rez" reading Tony Hillerman is almost a requirement. Your picture of the Burren actually reminds me of parts of New Mexico, I wonder if that doesn't have something to do with the types of culture and law that develop in those types of landscapes.

    The punitive western style of law (prisons and executions) are costly. I've suspected that maybe this type of law develops because people and resources are scarce and destroying either hurts the whole community more than it helps.

    Sounds like an interesting read, I think I'd be most interested in the law snippets at the top of each chapter. Does the author give a source for them?

  12. Meme, thanks so much for coming! The author did not cite references, but I was sufficiently intrigued to do some online research on my own, and learned the following:

    All of the laws she lists in the book were accurate in Irish (not necessarily Scottish) Brehon Law.

    Cahermacnaghton was indeed Ireland's major law school, and run by the O'Davorens. Documents in the British Museum contain a judgment by Brehon Mara O'Davoren in 1506 or so (As I remember, I couldn't see the text of that document.)

    King Turlough Donn and his three sons were also historical characters.

    Unfortunately, I did not save my research once I was satisfied of the accuracy of the history and law, but it can be verified by internet searches of reputable sites.

    There are no druids or supernatural elements in this series; they are fictional legal procedurals set in real history in a real place and time using the real laws of the period.

    Whew, sorry for the length of this! Thanks so much for asking!

    I love Hillerman's books too, and was sad when he died. He also had a fine sensitivity for the culture he wrote about, and I pick up fascinating new facts about it every time I reread them.

    Your thought about the restrictions of certain landscapes affecting the law of the area is very interesting.

    Please come back any time, you are a very stimulating guest!