Beyond Absolution (A Reverend Mother Mystery), by Cora Harrison
This book demonstrates what I have long considered to be one of the most essential aspects of the mystery novel, and that is the ambivalence that the sleuth as solver of mysteries has with the world of officialdom. This novel demonstrates that ambivalence in a particularly elegant way, telling a complex story of death and the deep divisions of Irish Civil War-era Cork in a way that is deeply poignant. This is a mystery that gets to the heart of various characters and shows the struggle between different systems of law, and at the center of so much of it is a mother superior who runs a convent school and who shows herself to be an immensely shrewd and complex woman from a background that allows her to navigate between a variety of roles, from her modest place within the local Catholic hierarchy to interacting with figures who are connected to the civil guards as well as the Sinn Fein, all of which have an interest in a chain of murders that appears to be connected to some wealthy spendthrifts who are well-connected and living far too fast of a life for it not to catch up with them. Of course, plenty of people get caught up in harm’s way.
This book is written in such a way that it demonstrates the passage of time as well as the relationship between a small set of characters. On the one hand, we have the Reverend Mother and the people she interacts with, including people who help her out with the Convent School as well as the local church, and also a group of people relating to the legal and justice system of the area, and on top of them a connection that she has with someone who wants to be involved in the justice system for Sinn Fein, all of which present a complicated picture. Beyond this there is a further social circle that attracts scrutiny, a jet-setting mostly Protestant group of people whose fast living and involvement with drugs and arson and stolen property serves both to finance a high life on their part and a love of high culture as well as serving to blame Sinn Fein for the destruction of ascendancy homes. This atmosphere of blame and recrimination has deadly consequences as the body count rises and the Reverend Mother finds it necessary to seek for justice outside of the law to protect those who are being targeted by a murderer.
What is that makes murders beyond absolution? This book tests various ways that may be the case, including the murder of a priest whose devotion to his flock helped to sabotage his political chances of advancement within the Catholic hierarchy because of the humanity he showed even to Irish terrorists facing their just executions, the murder of a boy with obvious mental handicaps that prevented him from being able to read, the murder of an obvious evildoer, but in pinning the murder on someone else as a means of drawing conflict to those who were, in this case, innocent of a large variety of crimes they were being accused of, including arson as well as murder. And while all of this is going on, there is a picture of a society under deep stress, with a look at multiple systems of justice that are trying to help deal with the large amounts of violence present in Irish society at the time, a harbinger of what would be a permanent sort of existence for areas like Ulster but was mercifully temporary for Cork. Still, this is a mystery novel that hits at a rather personal place even if one doesn’t happen to be Irish, if the divided nature of the area can be easily understood and related to.