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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

A Carol for the Dead by Patrick Dunne

December 1, 2016

Tivoli Publishing:  Dublin, Ireland
2005 (PB)

Patrick Dunne has penned an absorbing, intellectually satisfying mystery steeped in Irish lore, history and archaeology.  The setting is mid-December in the area immediately adjacent to Newgrange, the Neolithic monument dating from c. 3200 BC.  As most people are busily preparing for the Christmas holidays, contract archaeologist Illaun Bowe is called to Monashee Bog to check out human remains found in the peat—a literal “bog body”–  exposed by the backhoe operator clearing the area for the proposed construction of a tourist hotel.  The tanning process of the dermis would indicate a burial of great antiquity, but she follows protocol to enlist the services of the state pathologist and the local garda (police) to be certain it is not a modern burial.

The autopsy reveals that the body—nicknamed “Mona” after the Monashee Bog—was a young woman who had recently given birth.  Most disturbing, her throat was slit, she was garroted, and her face was horribly disfigured.  More unsettling was the discovery, in the peat matrix surrounding Mona’s remains, of an infant, whether stillborn or live birth unclear, that was a grossly deformed genetic nightmare.

While tests were being conducted by Malcolm Sherry, the state pathologist, Illaun found herself running afoul of the belligerent Frank Traynor, the owner of Monashee Bog and prominent property developer who proposes to build the rumored hotel.  He is scornful of the delay in his plans and even threatens her with a late night drunken phone call.  Illaun finds it difficult to comprehend that Traynor has received the required permissions to develop lands so close to a World Heritage Site such as Newgrange, but she quickly comes to realize that Traynor is very well connected politically, and seems to have the Director of Excavations for the National Museum and the Minister for Tourism and Heritage in his pocket.  This avails Traynor little as he is found brutally murdered, exhibiting the same wounds and disfigurements as the bog body, with a pagan holiday card and a Latin passage, cursing him for his carnal lusts.  Within a short time a second murder is committed—this time the victim is a corrupt police sergeant closely tied to Frank Traynor, and the body is found on the grounds of Newgrange.  He too has been garroted, his throat has been slit and his face disfigured

With the reluctant aid of police Inspector Matthew Gallagher and her sometimes-lover folklorist Finian Shaw, Illaun follows a twisted path of clues to the grisly truths behind the bog body and the copy-cat contemporary murders.  That twisted path leads her to a mysterious convent of Hospitaller nuns, whose existence stretches back to the 10th Century, and who, until recently, owned Monashee Bog.  The convent also seems to be the haunt of a ghostly figure dressed in the garb of a medieval nun—a figure intent upon doing great harm to Illaun.

This is a very entertaining novel, best saved for the long dark nights of winter.  The protagonists—especially Illaun—are well-defined and sympathetic, and the story is well-paced.  The rich background of history, folklore and archaeology provide substance to a well-conceived murder mystery.

Four trowels for A Carol for the Dead.