Imagine a wind-swept stony place on the edge of the sea, where ancient Irish law holds sway in the face of English empire-building. Cora Harrison’s series of Burren mysteries is set in a law school during the sixteenth century on the limestone plateau called the Burren on the west coast of Ireland. I’ve never been there, but I imagine something like Malham Cove but by the sea. On the basis of Cora’s beautiful descriptions, this is definitely somewhere I’d like to go on holiday… Alongside the scenery, Mara is a fascinating lead character: kind, wise, alert to the vagaries of human nature and motivation and an excellent Brehon, acting as both judge and investigator for the king. Mara’s personal story is told over a long story arc through the series, which makes this one of the few crime series where I think it’s worth trying to read it in order, although you’ll still enjoy the books if you pick one up at any point.
I could have reviewed any of the first four books in the series,but I chose The Sting of Justice (3rd) because it’s the only time I’ve ever seen bees used as a offensive weapon to kill someone excessively allergic to bee stings. Mara must decide whether the hive was knocked over deliberately, and if so, who could have done it? Among other things, this is a very egalitarian crime: it is not just the tall and strong who could be suspects. I loved the way the story was told, and the resolution was surprising and satisfying as all good murder mysteries should be.
Another thing which I enjoy about this series is that Mara is assisted in her investigations by her young law scholars, whom she is responsible for teaching all the fine details of Brehon law so that they may become a lawyer or even a Brehon themselves. It’s fair to say that the Brehon system of law is another major character in the series, with short extracts from the law books illustrating the beginning of each chapter.
This is never intrusive, but absolutely fascinating: a world where everyone is a member of one of the four clans (the O’Briens, the Macnamaras et al) makes is possible for restorative justice to be the norm. It means that a public confession and a hefty fine is the worst punishment available for the vast majority of crimes: clans and families are responsible for paying the fines for wrongdoers and exacting sufficient control that the Irish can regard the typical punishments used by the English (prison or hanging) as barbaric. The only exception is when you murder a member of your own close kin (known as “fingal”) but even then there is mercy: the punishment for fingal is to be pushed off into the sea in a boat without oars, where with luck you might wash up in the next kingdom to live in permanent exile from your family – but they’ll know what you’ve done by how you arrived.
What to Read Next
- My Lady Judge by Cora Harrison is the first book in this excellent series
- The Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters were my first introduction to historical sleuthing, and in my view still the best.
- Next on my murder mystery reading list are Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg and GK Chesterton’s collection of short detective stories The Incredulity of Father Brown.
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