Death Of A Prominent Citizen (A Reverend Mother Mystery), by Cora Harrison
If you like your historical murder mysteries mixed with politics and some ferocious social commentary, this is a book that delivers and provides a look at the complexities of life in early independence Ireland when the Free State suffered economically as well as from the tension between the high hopes of how life would be for the Irish after independence and the modest achievements of the Free State in providing for the well-being of its citizens. It is a common situation in post-colonial nations that people believe that the suffering and misery of the population is all due to the imperial occupying power, but when that power is removed people realize that government is hard and few people can be trusted with power and that one’s own people are no better rulers, and often worse rulers, than colonial administrators who have at least some professional ethics. At any rate, this book is a compelling look at a small situation in Cork that involves larger issues of society as well as demonstrating the intellectual savvy and historical knowledge and awareness of the writer. Harrison continues to impress and the Reverend Mother makes for a wonderful detective with a good ability to understand the issues of her place and time as well as the family politics of her personal situation.
This book is a short one at just over 200 pages and it makes for a compelling story that deserves to be turned into an Irish movie of some kind. Two events happening in close proximity and at the same time in Cork find themselves to be related in a perverse kind of way on the larger and smaller scale, both of them involving some of the same people to tie them together even closer. The Reverend Mother, along with some of her relatives, are summoned to the home of a wealthy woman who married a Protestant and gained some wealth from her husband’s mines while being a Cork slumlord, and after telling them she is going to change her will and encouraging them to pit themselves against each other for the money, she winds up dead and it is revealed that she had already changed her will before to give all of her money to her favorite nephew, a professor at the local university who has set up Viking homes and done research on the origins of Cork as a Viking port. Meanwhile, the viking homes become the site of a protest against terrible living conditions in the slums where the dockworkers live and the rioting claims the life of a foolhardy landlord who enters a pub full of drunk and angry poor people demanding that his tenants renounce such foolishness as civil disobedience and angry protests on pain of being thrown out of their house and blacklisted. Meanwhile, the usual group of people including the Reverend Mother, Inspector Patrick, and journo Eileen work to see that the truth is revealed and justice is served before things get out of hand.
Ultimately, this book comes to a conclusion that is intellectually satisfying but emotionally troubling. It is a testament to the skill of the author that she is able to craft a situation that deals with personal as well as wider politics that explicitly ties together two landlords who died roughly at the same time in very different ways and the poisoned nature of politics and power. The author views a great many sources of power that prove to be problematic, including the power that educators can have over their students to pressure others, the power that the wealthy have over others and the revolutionary problems that result and the miscarriage of justice that results when the poor try to rise up in violence over the nature of their own position. This proves to be unsettling to the reader, who might be expecting a more straightforward pro-revolutionary conclusion but finds that everything leads to moral complexities and a feeling of uneasiness as there are ultimately no easy answers given the world that we find ourselves in. And because of our own moral struggles, something that the protagonist wrestles with herself in her own situation, few of us can feel entirely comfortable being judge, jury, and executioner of others like ourselves, even if their own mixture of good and evil is often far different than our own.