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.
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.