What a delight this book is! A firm recommendation for all you lovers of cosy crime out there, and especially for anyone who likes Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series but hasn’t yet discovered this one. Cora Harrison has set her novels in sixteenth century Ireland, in the region known as the Burren. It’s one of the places in the world I would most like to go, an area of limestone pavement which is famous for its superb and unique spring flowers, as the cracks (grykes) in the limestone create tiny micro-climates where alpine treasures nestle. The karst plateau looks bleak from a distance, it’s an environment for lovers of detail, one I only know from a similar area in northern England which is much less spectacular but still wondrous.
Like the Sister Fidelma books, these focus on an aspect of Ireland’s history, its ancient legal system. The main character, Mara, is a brehon, a legal expert who is called on to deal with everyday judicial matters within the kingdom. She also runs a small law school, with six pupils, thus providing her with a selection of acolytes with whom to discuss the niceties of brehon law as opposed to canon law, and so on, so there is plenty of explanation for the reader without it becoming laboured. In fact, I think Harrison is very good at getting on with the story straight away – this was the third in a series, and I haven’t read 1 and 2, but I could follow everything immediately, with none of that sense of “something missing” that can assail you when you start reading something mid way. And in Mara she has created a character who you want to spend time getting to know, because she is strong, warm, sympathetic and intelligent. (Actually, she’s gentler than Sister Fidelma, softer and more rounded in a literary as well as physical sense.)
Bees feature largely in the story, and the whole book is redolent, somehow, with their buzzing, and the scent of flowers, grass and honey. There’s nothing very startling in the whodunnit sense: it’s all much more about people and motives, and good judgment of character, than intricacies of plotting and investigating. The young students are enthusiastic helpers in deduction, happy to avoid their everyday studies in pursuit of a murderer when an unpopular silversmith is stung to death by bees. Both his family and his employees appear to have strong motives for murder, and Mara must beware of her ready sympathy for his victims. With her young scholars and her wolfhound, Bran, she sets out for the victim’s silver mine to look for clues and discovers that the man was even more loathsome than she first thought.
Each chapter is prefaced with an extract from recorded Brehon law, which sets the scene most effectively – I thought the notion of “bee trespass” was fascinating. I don’t think these books should be restricted to lovers of mystery novels, they would stand up just as well in the historical genre. The first in the series is on order at the library, and I’m confident that I’m going to enjoy it just as much, because The Sting of Justice is just one of those books that make you feel good about the world.
Flowers in the Burren, from Wikipedia