Erin Hart, Haunted Ground (Scribner, 2003)

Green Man readers and staff have a great affinity for all things Celtic. And great novels set in Ireland that feel authentic are rare indeed. When Scribner sent this for review, I was not expecting that it would be the exception to that rule, but I was wrong. Haunted Ground is both a superb mystery and a look at the complex and troubling history of Ireland. I am, after all, a tough sell when it comes to fiction, as I get to sample hundreds of new novels every year, most long before you see them in your favorite bookstore! Ireland and the Irish are haunted by its ever-so-troubled past. A past so long and complex that even a murder becomes a matter more of myth than reality.

Erin Hart's first novel, Haunted Ground, weaves a tight but complex tale of how the head of a red-headed woman found in a bog by a farmer cutting peat to heat his home gets tangled up in both history and myth, as reflected in the minds of those involved in solving this case — and those who don't want the puzzle solved. Was she murdered? Oh, yes — decapitated quite efficiently. But who murdered her? And why? Was it millennia ago? Or was it but a few years ago? (Bogs preserve organic material for very long periods.) And who now knows what happened to her?

As I just noted, Haunted Ground begins when a farmer cutting turf in the west of Ireland makes a grisly discovery: the perfectly preserved severed head of a beautiful young woman with long red hair. Called out to the bog to investigate, Irish archeologist Cormac Maguire and American pathologist Nora Gavin are thrown together by their shared curiosity about her fate. Imbuing her with a status out of myth itself, Cormac will name her, in Gaelic, calin rau, making her more than merely a dead girl. She is, in a real sense, representative of the whole history of Ireland. Was she killed by a Druid priest? A murderous husband? A stranger from elsewhere? Without any evidence, it becomes akin to the poor lass in the Oysterband's song, "The Oxford Girl": 'I never had a chance to prove them wrong / My time was short, the story long / No I never had a chance to prove them wrong / It's always them that write the song....'

All of which would make this just a neat puzzle if not for the fact that two years earlier the wife of Hugh Osborne, the wealthiest local landowner and descendent of Owen Osborne, one of the Cromwellian usurpers, went for a walk late one afternoon with her young son and vanished without a trace. Did mother and child become lost in the treacherous bog, where even the most able local can step wrong? Will the investigation into our red-headed colleen unearth them too? And did Hugh Osborne murder his family, as some villagers believe all too firmly? Bracklyn House, Osborne's stately home, holds many secrets that Nora and Cormac and policeman Garrett Devaney may or may not uncover. But their persistent inquiries into these possibly intertwined cases threaten to rip asunder the small rural community, which has secrets long buried. Secrets that should, in all likelihood, remain buried.

Erin Hart has a rather nicely done Web site which has a bio for her:

"Erin Hart was born in 1958 and grew up in Rochester, Minnesota, the second of four children in a family that believed in reading. 'My mother used to read to my sisters and me every day after lunch in the summers. I remember living through Little Women, Robinson Crusoe, and Treasure Island. The stories and the characters were so rich, so real to me. I couldn't wait to find out what would happen next." Reading remained as a passion since that time, but writing was a long way down the road. Educated at Saint Olaf College and the University of Minnesota, Hart originally trained to become a theater director, and has been variously employed as a stage manager, secretary, propmaster, civil servant, and eventually as a copywriter, writing teacher, journalist, and theater critic. She also promoted the work of traditional musician friends and helped co-found a local Irish Music & Dance Association. Hart says she felt drawn to traditional music — particularly Irish music — and traditional forms of singing and storytelling from an early age. She became interested in the highly ornamented, unaccompanied singing style the Irish call sean nos ('old style'), and started performing around 1980. The following year, she traveled to the west of Ireland to study the Irish language, and met her husband, accordion player Paddy O'Brien, on the day she returned home; they were married in 1987."

What's not evident in her bio is her ability to write about her love of Celtic traditional music, and particularly about the session, where personalities, the setting, and the music form something quite special. Now, I've seen well-written session scenes in fiction before — with the best being in Paul Brandon's Swim the Moon, Charles de Lint's Forests of the Heart, and James Hetley's The Summer Country. Ahhh, but the sessions here are the equal of those, as they catch the very feel of what a session is like. I have no doubt that it helps that Hart's married to Paddy O'Brien, whom Green Man has reviewed in the guise of Chulrua and their CD, Barefoot on the Altar. Though it's just a bit of a stretch as regards believability, all three of the characters looking into the matter of the two mysteries in this book are musicians!

Erin Hart has written a truly great novel with interesting and believable characters (an even rarer occurrence, I'd like to add), a set of fascinating mysteries, a detailed look at contemporary Irish culture, lots of back story as regards the history of the Irish, and just enough music in the narrative to, in musical vernacular, "step it up lively." I'm certainly looking forward to reading her next novel!

[Cat Eldridge]

You can read an excerpt of Haunted Ground here.