A Secret And Unlawful Killing, by Cora Harrison
This is a book that I am somewhat surprised that I liked. There are a lot of ways that the author could have messed this up–there are strong feminist angles with the book, especially with its main character, the Brehon Mara, and the author’s perspective is hostile against the English and their cultural influence among the Irish elite even in the 16th century. In lesser hands this novel would have been overwhelmed by the biases of the author, but Harrison is a skilled writer, and even if the reader is going to be aware of the author’s biases and maybe an anti-feminist and Anglophile as I happen to be, the story itself is compelling enough that the author’s biases are far less important than her skill in crafting a story that tests the investigative skills of a detective who is a middle aged woman with a lot of marriage proposals from people around her and a strong desire to keep her own independence and self-respect within the community and not merely be attached to a wealthy or powerful husband, even if it be the king of her section of Ireland, which only has a few decades left as an independent kingdom.
This novel is a bit more than 300 pages and it tells a story of two seemingly connected murders that take place in early 16th century Ireland in a small community that is deeply divided, not least by the changes that are coming on the community by a new lord who is demanding higher rents of his tenants in order to pay for the goods wanted by his Anglo-Irish wife. The man responsible for collecting the rents finds himself unpopular, and the fact that he has a marriageable teenage daughter only presents him with more difficulties, as she is in love with the cousin of the local king, an O’Brien who has a son wasting away and another one who has adopted English ways and who is becoming more and more estranged with the traditional area his father rules and its traditionalist people. Altercations and disputes over land inheritance come to a head at a local market, and by the time the judge is able to adjudicate matters two people are dead and it appears that a serial killer might be on the loose. The rest of the novel takes place as the author interviews people and tries to solve the case along with her young law students in her home school. I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a suitably dramatic and poignant one that makes you almost wish that the world this novel inhabited had longer to live and that the longer story of the Irish legal tradition had a happier ending.
Ultimately, this is a book that gives the reader a lot to think about, as any good historical mystery does. The author does a great job of making rural 16th century Ireland come alive, and presents the reader with a compelling look at a society that is not going to last long, where Brehon law and the expectations of centuries of tradition are running against new ways that are influencing others. The author has a tendency to view the native Irish and their ways with a high degree of nostalgia, and also demonstrates a strong awareness of the ins and outs of Brehon law, which plays a major role in how this story progresses. Indeed, the difference between the legal system of medieval Ireland and the contemporary western world is one of the ways that shows this particular book and its story to be particularly compelling. After all, there is a high degree of praise placed on those who act with generosity and on the importance of verbal contracts, properly witnessed by others, as a means of avoiding social chaos and the damage that results when people’s word can no longer be trusted. We live in such an age where chaos results from the inability of people to hold others to their promises, which plays a huge role in this story and how it progresses.