For my second book for Reading Ireland Month (well, also my final book I guess, although I started Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine on Saturday, so that sort of counts, doesn’t it?), I chose Erin Hart’s Lake of Sorrows, the second book in her Nora Gavin/Cormac Maguire series. I read the first book in the series, Haunted Ground, back in 2009. While Hart is technically an American (as is Nora Gavin, her female protagonist), the series is set in Ireland. Nora is a pathologist and Cormac is an anthropologist, so they seem to find themselves pulled into helping to solve modern-day crimes as a result of their work with older specimens, specifically bodies and artifacts recovered from the boglands in central Ireland.
From this point on, my review will contain some spoilers. That’s the thing about series like this one: many of the areas up for discussion will be based on things that happened in the previous books. So one thing to know about Lake of Sorrows from the get-go is that while you can read it as a standalone, some things won’t make much sense, or may seem to take up valuable time in the book without really warranting it.
As Lake of Sorrows opens, Nora is on her way to investigate (as part of a research team from the National Museum) a bog body that has been recovered by an archaeological team that works at a peat cultivation site to ensure the preservation of archaeological finds. One thing Hart does well is to keep the political and environmental impact of the bogland in the reader’s mind. Peat can be cultivated relatively cheaply to fuel power plants, but cheap fuel has its price:
It was astonishing to her that bogs, despite their role as collective memory, were still being relinquished to feed the ever-growing hunger for electric power. Up until a hundred years ago, the bogs had been considered useless, mere wasteland. then men of science had gone to work on them, devising ever more efficient ways to harvest peat—only to find out, too late, that this was a misguided effort, and perhaps the wrong choice all along. Twenty years from now, the outdated power plants would be gone. The bog would be stripped right down to the marl subsoil, and would have to begin anew the slow reversion to its natural state, layer by layer, over the next five, eight, or ten thousand years.
Nora is only at the site a short time when one of the young archaeologists uncovers another body—only this one happens to be wearing a wristwatch. Even though the second body is clearly a modern man, similarities appear to exist in the way the men have died (or were killed). When the lead archaeologist at the site is found murdered not long after the discovery of the second bog body—and again with similar marks and methods, Nora finds herself drawn ever deeper into the mystery, as is Cormac, who has accompanied her (separately) and offered her a place to stay.
Here’s where it gets a bit spoiler-y. In Haunted Ground, Nora and Cormac were set up (as a couple) by a man who was mentor to each of them. At the beginning of Lake of Sorrows, Nora is thinking that she will have to leave Cormac in pursuit of the one thing that obsesses her, which is proving that her dead sister Triona’s husband, who is about to be remarried, is responsible for Triona’s murder a few years earlier. This backstory is given much more space in Haunted Ground, and at the beginning of Lake of Sorrows it seems that this will be one of the larger subplots to help further develop Nora (and possibly Cormac). Strangely enough, although Nora spends the first few chapters acting weepy and strange and guilty for not staying focused on Triona’s death and about her decision to leave Cormac, the entire thing is all but dropped until near the end of the book, when she mentions to Cormac that she needs to return to America, and his response is not much more than, “I knew you would.” I suppose I can understand why Hart would want to save the Triona storyline perhaps for a book that’s more full devoted to that crime, it annoyed me that it was such a huge deal in the first few chapters and then is basically dropped while she and Cormac try to figure out the murders. On that note, Cormac doesn’t get much in the way of development in this book (and neither does Nora, actually, not really), and plays second string to Nora even though he has his own past issues with his father to deal with that were well-established in the first book and only given passing mention in this one.
Another thing that, for me, made Lake of Sorrows less satisfying than Haunted Ground was the mystery itself. While Hart is very good at weaving in cultural history—in this case, mostly about Celtic sacrificial rituals and Iron Age artifacts—the mystery itself is somewhat boring. The characters involved, other than the Detective Liam Ward (whom I hope reappears in later books in the series), are mostly types easily set in to make that subplot move forward. For example, Ursula Downes, the head archaeologist who is murdered, had been involved with Cormac when they were much younger. But she’s simply drawn as a manipulative man-eater (albeit one with a sad, clichéd past). This seemed to me like a real opportunity to develop Cormac’s character and have a complex villain (but not necessarily a murderer, which she’s not). The other problem for me was the pacing. Hart bogs this one down (ha!) with so many little subplots and oddball characters out to get this or that, it becomes tiresome.
Overall, Lake of Sorrows was good enough to make me want to read at least the third book, False Mermaid, if only because Hart does do such a good job with bringing in the history and culture of Ireland. I’m also interested to see if the issues I have with the second book (pacing, character development) are really more about the author feeling her way into a longer series. I definitely recommend it, but do read Haunted Ground first. You won’t be sorry.