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3 trowels

THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN

By: Erin Hart
Scribner:  New York
2013 (HC)

After a brief detour to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul to hunt down the killer of her sister, Nora Gavin has returned to her beloved Ireland and her even more beloved paramour, archaeologist Cormac Maguire.  Cormac and Nora are invited by Cormac’s old friend Niall Dawson of the National Museum to travel to County Tipperary to join the recovery efforts of a bog body accidentally unearthed in Killowen Bog near the town of Birr. 

Unlike their previous experiences with bog bodies that had been discovered in situ, this situation was quite different:  this body, judged by the Chief State Pathologist to be between 500 and 1000 years old, was found in the boot (trunk) of an automobile sunk in the bog—and entwined in the peat matrix with a very modern corpse, who had met an untimely and violent death.  While Nora, Cormac  and Niall work to solve the mystery of the ancient cadaver, detective Stella Cusack is charged with solving the mystery of the contemporary murder victim and how the two bodies came to be so intimately linked together.

Killowen Bog was abutted by three parcels of land—one owned by the unsavory Vincent Claffey, a man known to involve himself in shady deals for years; a second parcel owned by Anthony Beglan, a man whose solitary lifestyle and speech impediment give the impression of diminished mental abilities; and Killowen Farm, an artist colony, B&B, and working farm, settled and operated for the past twenty years by Claire Finnerty.  The archaeology crew working under the auspices of the National Museum take up residence at Killowen Farm and they soon become familiar and friendly with the tight-knit group of artists and permanent residents of the communal settlement.

Detective Cusack’s investigations quickly establish that the contemporary corpse is that of Benedict Kavanagh, host of an intellectual television chat show and medieval historian.  His program was known for his tendency to viciously attack his guests’ views and to hold them up to public ridicule—in other words, a man with plenty of enemies.  Nora and Cormac’s investigations of the ancient bog body do not lead to such rapid conclusions, but slowly and meticulously they do tease out certain possibilities.  Artifacts found in association with the buried automobile, among them a leather satchel, a stylus, and a tablet suggest he may have been a scribe associated with the nearby medieval monastic ruins.  Further research brings to light the near-legendary Book of Killowen, a sacred tome of great antiquity and of almost inestimable worth if still existed.  The existence of such a treasure could go a long way toward explaining the deathly embrace of the two bog bodies separated by a thousand years.

The Book of Killowen is in a sense two novels with a common theme; one tells of Detective Stella Cusack’s investigations into the murder of Benedict Kavanagh and this is a competently portrayed police procedural; the other is a vivid and fascinating depiction of the excavation, recovery and investigation of an ancient bog body.  Erin Hart excels at this latter examination.

Inevitably the two investigations converge and it becomes apparent that all of the potential suspects, from Vincent Claffey to Anthony Beglan to all of the inhabitants of Killowen Farm have deeply held secrets that, if exposed, could cause irreparable harm in so many ways and could even betray the identity of a murderer—or perhaps more than one murderer.

Erin Hart has authored another fine mystery with two very sympathetic protagonists, Nora and Cormac. What was missing in this novel—especially when compared to her first two efforts, Haunted Ground and Lake of Sorrows was her keen sense of place and a feel for the beauty of Ireland and the rhythms of its people and its language.  Hopefully that might return in future installments of the adventures of Nora Gavin and Cormac Maguire.

Three trowels for this very good archaeological mystery.

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.