I chose Erin Hart’s Haunted Ground as my pick for my “Strange” book, or a book that was from an unfamiliar genre. Since that time, I’ve read a number of mysteries, but I’m still new enough to the genre to feel like I am discovering something every time I pick up a new mystery.
Haunted Ground is the first in a series that follows Nora Gavin, an American pathologist, and Cormac McGuire, an Irish anthropologist. These two are drawn into mysteries through the work they do at archeological sites–at least on the surface. Nora is haunted by the murder of her sister, while Cormac is haunted by his relationship (or lack thereof) with his father and the death of his late mentor. In every sense, these “hauntings” drive Cormac and Nora through mystery presented to them in Haunted Ground.
At the story’s opening, the McGann brothers are cultivating peat bricks from a bog near their home when they come across an object in the peat:
Working deliberately, Brendan dug around the perimeter of the fibrous mat, probing for its edges, and scraping away loose bits of peat. He knelt on the spngy bank and pulled at the strands that began to emerge from the soaking turf. This was not horsehair; it was tanlged and matted, all right, but it was too long and far too fine to be the rooty material his father called horsehair. Brendan worked his broad fingers into the dense black peat he’d pried loose with the spade. Without warning, the block in his left hand gave way, and he cast it aside.
…Almost touching his knee were the unmistakable and delicate curves of a human ear. It was stained dark tobacco brown, and though the face was not visible, something in the line of the jaw, and the dripping tangle of fine hair above it, told him at once that the ear belonged to a woman.
So begins the mystery of the cailín rua, the red-haired girl. But as Nora and Cormac begin their investigation at the scene, they find that the red-haired girl doesn’t comprise the only mystery in the area. A stranger appears at the site of the dig, afraid that what’s been discovered are the bodies of his wife and son, missing for the last two years. This second mystery turns out to be the obsession of a third investigator, Detective Garrett Devaney, who is convinced of the husband’s guilt.
Hart handles these intertwining mysteries deftly, and through them she manages to intersperse a great deal of information about archeology and pathology, Irish and English politics, religion, class feuds, and local laws and folklore. I had forgotten, until I picked the it up again to write the review, how densely packed this book is. To read it is to feel fully immersed in the country and culture of Ireland, but it’s also a great story. As packed as it is, it moves smoothly along, and it’s difficult to put down. While the mysteries in the book are eventually solved, what haunts Nora and Cormac throughout the novel remains at the end. More than simply setting up the second book in the series, Hart leaves the ending open for these characters because they are more than simple outlines of people who solve crimes: they are both fully-realized characters whose goals in their lives outside of work are sometimes at complete odds, which makes them compelling as partners and people. I will definitely be reading the second book in the series, Lake of Sorrows, and will look forward to The False Mermaid, the third book in the series being published in March 2010.
A few more passages:
Cormac carefully lifted the damp strands and laid them aside, then froze when he saw what lay beneath. The girl’s mouth was clamped tightly shut, her top teeth embedded in the flesh of her lower lip. One eye stared wildly; the other was half closed. Her face seemed distorted with fear, a far cry from the images he’d seen of Iron Age bog men, whose unblemished bodies and tranquil expressions led to theories that they were either drugged, or willing victims of sacrifice. In its brief exposure to the air, the girl’s hair had already begun to dry, and a few strands began to play in the breeze that scooped down into the trench. Something about this tiny movement made it seem, for one surreal instant, that she was alive.
Half-eleven found Cormac and Nora hard at work on the excavation site. Banks of low gray cumulus clouds scudded across the sky from west to east, and a damp breeze from the ocean blew in over the mountains. Resting for a moment on the spade handle, Cormac thought about his own life, and what might remain of it in three hundred, eight hundred, or a thousand years; items he’d lost down the floorboards, or hidden so no one else could find them, until he, too, had lost track of their existence. He identified with the hoarders of earlier ages, burying and protecting their precious possessions, and then–whether through faulty memory, migration, or death–unable to reclaim them.