Eye Of The Law, by Cora Harrison
This book is one of the author’s mysteries set in sixteenth century Ireland , and it features her beloved Mara, Brehon of the Burren, and wife of the King of Thromond, solving another murder mystery that blends high politics and the deeply personal relationships of life in Ireland. The story is itself a strange and compelling one, one that reminds the reader that Brehon law is very different from the sorts of law that we expect out of the tradition of England and continental Europe, and that the law and its practice has always had to deal with the complexities of people and their behavior, and this behavior is not terribly dissimilar from what we would expect people to act throughout history, even though it is compellingly written from a sound knowledge of Irish texts and presumably actual cases that can be found in history. This is a historical mystery, and one that ought to please readers who have enjoyed the author’s other work. As one might expect, solving the mystery requires a sound knowledge of motive and opportunity as well as an awareness of the complex legal and political environment of Ireland during the 16th century, where Irish native rulers struggled to maintain their position in the face of growing encroachments from Tudor monarchs who would eventually put an end to all of the independent regimes of Ireland over the course of the next century and a half or so.
Without giving away too many spoilers, this novel is a pageturning classic in its presentation of the repercussions of the arrival of two men to claim that one Aral O’Lochlainn, a wealthy clan leader, is the father of one of the visitors from the Aran Islands, Iarla, who bears a letter from his local priest (a relative of his, as it happens) testifying the account of the dying words of his mother, who was known to be a bit promiscuous even by the lax standards of an Irish maiden. This Ardal denies, and when Iarla is found dead with one of his eyes cut out, a grim reminder of the myth of the eye of Balor, which plays a role in the story in several interrelated ways, Ardal is viewed as the prime suspect even though it is obvious to Mara that something deeper is afoot and he is being set up by someone else. Mara seeks to solve the case while also dealing with the drama of a young woman who wants to be a doctor but whose father is remarrying a greedy widow and wants her set aside and is willing to countenance the theft of her land, even as she deals with the late stages of pregnancy, which complicate her traveling to investigate as well as her teaching of law classes as she and her students attempt to solve first one and then two secret and unlawful killings.
Without giving away too many spoilers, this book exhibits the traits of the author’s writing, but that is by no means a bad thing. By the time one has read a few mysteries by an author, it is often pretty easy to get a sense of the author’s approach to her subject matter, and that is certainly the case here. As one might expect, the book is full of dealing with women’s issues, including the desire of women (like Mara, but by no means only her) for some degree of autonomy and a high degree of respect, a theme which runs throughout this book, even in such matters as the question of impotence of men and its consequences. The book also has an obvious suspect who is not himself guilty, but who is deeply involved in the context of the crimes and who makes for an obvious target of the investigation, even as he himself ends up being a victim of sorts. The book, like the author’s works as a whole, has a bittersweet ending that reminds the reader of the limitation of justice, as the wrongdoer finds himself banished but beyond the reach of the brehon because of his skillful choice of a place to escape. Thus the author subtly provides a discussion of how the spread of English law in Ireland’s cities undermined the native legal order of Ireland even before Ireland was fully subdued by the English.
 See, for example: