Thursday, December 31, 2015

Cora Harrison's A Shameful Murder, a superb mystery of 1920s Ireland

In this debut of a new series, Irish novelist Cora Harrison swiftly gets down to business, introducing her sleuth and murder victim with the first sentence: “It was Reverend Mother Aquinas who found the body of the dead girl.” Harrison’s long-running Burren Mysteries, set amid the rocky terrain of 16th-century western Ireland, proved her talent for evoking original settings beautifully, and this new venture is no different.

A Shameful Murder takes place in 1923 in the southwestern Irish coastal city of Cork, described in earlier times like “a Venice under a grey northern sky.” It was constructed on a marsh, and while the wealthy, of course, make their homes in the nearby hills, waters continue to emerge and flood the streets where Cork’s poorest residents live. Corpses washed up by floodwaters are common enough, sadly, even at the convent at St. Mary’s of the Isle.

More unusual in this case are the dead girl’s satin gown, belongings, and identity. After her less-than-distraught father identifies her, the Reverend Mother knows something’s not right. Tellingly, Angelina Fitzsimon would have received a significant inheritance if only she’d lived a few months longer.

The investigating sergeant from the newly formed civic guard, Patrick Cashman, happens to be the Reverend Mother’s former pupil, and they both dismiss the prevailing theory of suicide. Identifying with the young woman, “a girl from a privileged background like her own… a daughter of one of the rich merchant families of Cork,” Mother Aquinas decides to apply the intellectual skills granted her by God to finding answers.

What unfolds is a superbly crafted mystery that makes fine use of its locale and the diverse characters living there: the moneyed elite who attend the annual Merchants’ Ball, lecturers from the University College, and the energetic young people who fight for Ireland’s future by joining the illegal Republican Party.

There’s a delightful irony about the fact that, as a nun working amid Cork’s lower classes, the Reverend Mother is better versed in her world’s realities than most. A caring woman in her seventies, and of a practical frame of mind, she has the chops to see justice done. When she guesses one major clue before anyone else, she quietly revels in her triumph, and readers will too.

A Shameful Murder was published by Severn House in July ($28.95 hardcover, $14.49 Kindle, 256pp).  Thanks to the publisher for granting my access via NetGalley.  This is my last review for the year.  See you in 2016!


  1. Sounds wonderful! A 1920s female Brother Cadfael? I wonder if the young sergeant will become the sleuth's cop buddy in future mysteries?

    1. That's a good way of putting it - I hadn't thought about the comparison to Cadfael, but it definitely works!

      The Reverend Mother and Patrick do end up working together (along with a doctor colleague) and it looks like the partnership will be a lasting one. I'm hoping there'll be a new book in the series out next summer.

  2. This sounds like a keeper. And the cover is divine. Thanks for keeping me current! Wishing you a joyful 2016.

    1. It is a beautiful cover. And the novel makes me want to visit Cork city. We'd already been thinking about traveling to Ireland someday, too. I hadn't realized it was built similarly to Venice originally.

      All best to you and yours for 2016, Laurie!