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False Mermaid

By Erin Hart
Scribner, 2010

Erin Hart’s outstanding debut Haunted Ground introduced Nora Gavin, the American forensic pathologist working in Ireland with archaeologist Cormac Maguire, her colleague and lover. Their findings at ancient digs unearth the mysterious connections between the dead and the living. Both her knockout follow-up, Lake of Sorrows, and her new novel, False Mermaid, also skillfully combine archaeology and history with Irish myth and mystery. Indeed, these books remind us, archaeologists are the detectives of the past.

False Mermaid begins with Nora returning to her childhood home of Minneapolis, still tormented by the murder of her sister Triona, five years earlier. Convinced that Triona was killed by her husband Peter Hallett, but unable to prove it, Nora retreated to Ireland and began a new life. Now, Peter is about to marry again, and Nora feels she must tackle the unsolved crime anew and bring him to justice before he wreaks more havoc on her family, especially, her 11-year old niece Elizabeth.

All too willing to help is Frank Cordova, the lead investigator on Triona’s case and as convinced as Nora of Hallett’s guilt. They are aided by new evidence, i.e., the body of a missing young woman that turns up near the spot where Triona was attacked yielding clues that have more than a passing connection to Triona and Peter. Specifically, plant seeds from the bodies and the crime scenes, seeds from a rare plant known as the “false mermaid.”

Nora’s startling recollections about Triona’s last days and her marital revelations, juxtaposed with Peter’s flaunting his bride-to-be and savagely manipulating his daughter, make for chilling reading. Elizabeth, caught between what she is told and what she believes, is used as a bridge between the supernatural, (she talks to the seals—well, one seal who later becomes her savior), and the so-called real world. In lesser hands this would be hokey, but Hart handles it with panache.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland, Cormac becomes ensnared in another enduring local mystery, concerning the century-old disappearance of a woman believed to be a selkie (a sea creature, often called a sea maid or mermaid, who becomes human when she loses her sealskin). As the young folklorist who coincidentally, almost “magically,” crosses Cormac’s path tells him:

“There are several old families in Ireland…who all claim to be descended from Seal folk. I’m not saying it’s literally true, but such things were believed at one time—taken as fact….Fairy brides are one of the major motifs in folklore…. Most of the selkie tales weren’t written down until the nineteenth century, and it’s always interesting to me how they’ve filtered through the prism of contemporary values…. Loads of Victorian gentlemen were amateur anthropologists…. But their fascination with what they called ‘primitive’ cultures was coupled with an equally strong aversion. They [selkies] always found a way to break their marriage bonds; the Victorians always disliked that uncomfortable twist in the stories.”

“How does a selkie break her marriage bond,” Cormac asked.

“She discovers what was taken from her, the magic object that’s kept her in captivity. In her case, it’s a sealskin, stolen and hidden from her. If she can regain it, the stories say, she’s able to return to her true self, her true home in the sea.”

Erin Hart

The two plot elements are elegantly combined through the almost feminist view of the selkie’s plight: a woman torn between loyalty to her human family and the lingering need for a return to the independence of the sea. At the heart of the mystery is the age old question, what keeps a woman in a bad relationship. Hart nimbly intermingles the Minneapolis scenes with the Ireland scenario, bringing it all together for a bittersweet finale.

Here it is worth noting, to expand on my opening paragraph, that the archaeologist’s and the detective’s professional techniques are similar: both involve the meticulous observation, collection, and analysis of tangible and intangible evidence. Agatha Christie claimed her famous archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, was the inspiration for several of her best novels. One of the earliest mysteries with an archaeological setting was her, Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), which was followed by Death on the Nile (1937), wherein Hercule Poirot takes a cruise through the ancient land of the Pharaohs. Christie called this “…one of the best of my ‘foreign travel’ ones.” Spurred on by an Egyptologist friend of her husband’s, she set Death Comes as the End (1945) in Egypt during the Middle Kingdom, 3,000 years ago, showing clearly that human nature does not change.

Elizabeth Peters, an Egyptologist, complements her exploration of the sites of ancient Egypt with the history and growth of archaeology as a science in her period mystery series featuring a husband-and-wife team of Egyptologists, Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson. In Peters 18th Peabody/Emerson adventure, Tomb of the Golden Bird (2006), she pits the intrepid pair against real life archaeologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. The tomb of the title is, of course, King Tut’s. In Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time (1988), Sergeant Jim Chee discovers the bodies of two men who paid with their lives for despoiling an ancient burial ground. Hillerman goes on to explore the conflict between modern materialism and ancient beliefs. This is the heart pounding stuff of many an epic film, let alone setting for many a classic thriller.

Archaeology is an apt metaphor for how Erin Hart unearths her novels—working down through many layers, finding connections, bringing priceless artifacts and terrible secrets of the past to light. Subtly, lyrically, she uncovers the many hidden layers of this all too human drama.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey. You can find her vast back-catalog of It’s a Mystery columns here.