Much like Tremayne’s Fidelma of Cashel, Harrison mines the Ireland of 1509 for her historical mystery, as Brehon (Judge) Mara must solve a “secret and unlawful killing” and restore peace to the kingdom of Burren. Although a few Irish nobility look to England and the reign of the new king, Henry VIII, most adhere to the centuries-old traditions of governance, a set of laws that strictly define how conflicts are resolved.
When the person responsible for a tragedy does not speak up and admit a crime against another – in this case a death - so rare is the predicament that the crime deserves the most critical of investigations. The very fabric of society is torn by such an outrage. The Brehon’s task is to swiftly reconcile the circumstances of the killing with the facts, to restore the balance of a carefully constructed society.
The head of the MacNamara clan has increased his yearly assessments, his steward traveling from place to place, adding goods to his cart. But when men gather in the square to visit with one another and celebrate at the Michaelmas Fair, the greedy steward of the clan is found dead, his cart standing idly by.
This death casts a pall over the festivities, the crowd unsettled by the shocking event. When yet another man is found dead within the same time frame, the Brehon, Mara, is called to investigate, sorting through a puzzling number of facts and possibilities to the underlying cause of the crimes.
Various premises of established law precede each chapter, setting the stage for Mara’s careful deliberations and gathering of relevant facts. Like a contemporary detective story, this novel uses logic and fact to move from one suspect to another, greed and betrayal just as pervasive in structured Burren as in later centuries. Although life is simple and needs readily met by law, the security of each clan rests on its lineage.
There are rumors of unhappiness in a certain household, the harboring of secret ambitions. With the aid of the enthusiastic students she is instructing in the law, Mara does her best to reconcile the deaths fairly, to weigh fact with suspicion and rumor. An intelligent, attractive woman, at the same time she is investigating the deaths, Mara is also considering a proposal of marriage.
Clearly Harrison is at home with time and place, her love of Ireland evident in a novel that harkens to earlier times when the rule of law is enforced for the greater good. The descriptive prose is picturesque, rich in character and historical detail, western Ireland bound to the old ways in spite of an encroaching English influence. Mara’s sleight of hand, necessary in the circumstances, delivers the culprit, to all of Burren’s shock and dismay.