Title: Haunted Ground (Nora Gavin Book 1)
Author: Erin Hart
Publication Date: 2003
A local farmer discovers a perfectly preserved head of a young woman with red hair as he is cutting turf in an Irish peat bog and the rest of her body is nowhere to be found. Irish archaeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin are invited to the scene to preserve the evidence. Because of the acidic bog environment, it is difficult to say how old the head is – two years or two centuries. Nora and Cormac work together to discover who the young woman was and how her head wound up in the bog; was it murder or execution and why. But, it is not just the red-headed woman whose mystery needs to be solved in this remote part of Galway. Two years earlier, the wife and young son of Hugh Osbourne, a local landowner, vanished without a trace.
When Nora and Cormac are invited to Hugo’s estate, Bracklyn House, to make an archaeological survey of his land in preparation for creating a workshop that will demonstrate and sell traditional crafts, they are able to see Bracklyn’s inhabitants in close quarters. Hugo’s cousin and son live in the house; the mother and son seem to each be hiding from their past and are antagonistic toward the visitors. Brendan McGann, the peat farmer who discovered the severed head, and his brother, sister, and niece all seem to be fighting demons of their own.
When vandalism and threats arise, Detective Garrett Devaney defies orders from higher up and combines his investigation of the severed head with the Hugh Osbourne’s missing family. Nora and Cormac become involved in both investigations as their archaeological findings produce evidence for both mysteries. As they keep searching, their discoveries and inquiries begin to unravel the secrets of the bog, both its immediate and ancient past.
This was an amazing gothic mystery. I loved how the author told the story of really three mysteries: the one of the red-headed woman, the one of Hugh Osbourne’s missing family, and the one of the lives of the current residents of Bracklyn House and its surrounding town. The interweaving of the stories told all in present time was a different style that many mysteries that involve the past and present, and I really liked how it kept all the action and intrigue engaging and fresh. The story is steeped in history and atmosphere but is offered in a very modern presentation. I loved the homage paid to Irish lore and music throughout the novel, and the author’s descriptions create a very suspense and haunting feel.
I especially liked the characters of Nora and Cormac. The author presents knowledge of their occupations – archaeologist and pathologist – with great forensic detail; however, the terminology and procedures are blended so well with the plot line that the novel never feels too technical or overbearing. The forensics add to the realism of the story and how the truth is believably discovered. Nora and Cormac also have their own histories and ghosts from the past that are brilliantly interwoven in the plot line. Their relationship builds on both a mutual attraction and an appreciation and drive for the truth. They are quite likable and relatable characters.
I also enjoyed how the author began each section with a quotation from a seventeenth-century historical source and a description of conditions in Ireland during the Cromwellian resettlement. It was fascinating to see the lasting impact of the historical events. Excavation details and plot drawings also help the reader to visualize both the past and present locations in the story.
Who might like this book:
There are a number of factors that would draw readers to this book. The wealth of Irish history and atmosphere create an engaging setting for the mystery; I felt like I could almost smell the peat burning and feel the mist on my face as I read. For mystery readers who enjoy a bit more forensics and detective work than is found in cozy mysteries, this book provides a multi-layered story where there is more than one mystery to be solved. Finally, the gothic suspense of the story-telling style reminds me a bit of Simone St. James’ stories. Haunted Ground relies more on the scientific function of detective work but creates an atmosphere where science and history and the unknown all collide and must work together to solve the puzzle.
I really enjoyed the book and am looking forward to reading more. When I discovered the series, I mistakenly purchased book 4 — don’t you hate when that happens — but am thrilled that I enjoyed the first one so much that I want to continue reading the rest. The author only releases books every few years and currently there are three more in the series: Lake of Sorrows, False Mermaid, and The Book of Killowen.