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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

Lake of Sorrows by Erin Hart

January 1, 2005

Scribner, New York
2004 (hc)

Last year I reviewed Erin Hart’s initial entry into the realm of archaeology/mystery fiction, Haunted Ground, and raved about her potential. Lake of Sorrow is her second novel and I’m elated to report that she has exceeded my expectations. Her protagonists, pathologist Nora Gavin and her sometime-lover archaeologist Cormac Maguire, are more deftly portrayed than in Haunted Ground; the texture of County Offaly, just west of Dublin, is richly rendered, and the mystery of the bog bodies discovered in Loughnabrone (Lake of Sorrow) is both fascinating and frightening.

Minneapolis-reared Nora is back in Ireland, summoned to help investigate the discovery of an Iron Age bog body, a victim of the legendary “triple death”-death by garroting, throat slitting and drowning-to meet the demands of the ancient gods. Almost simultaneously another bog body is discovered nearby-garroted, throat slit, and drowned-and wearing a wristwatch! The mystery grows more deadly as the body of archaeologist Ursula Downes is found drowned in her bathtub, her throat slit and a garrote around her neck. These three violent deaths, separated by only miles geographically, but by millennia in time, seem to have as a unifying element the cult of human sacrifice common to many pre-historic cultures. Yet for Nora and police detective Liam Ward, the common thread for the two contemporary crimes lead them to more prosaic possibilities: the lingering mystery of the Loughnabrone hoard, a collection of Iron Age artifacts discovered some decades earlier, or possibly the wonton lifestyle of Ursula Downes. Nonetheless, the possibility of a renewal of the cult of sacrifice, practiced by some dangerous and deranged individual close to the Loughnabrone dig remains a very real alternate answer to the killings.

As in her earlier Haunted Ground, Erin Hart description of the Irish bog country is evocative of that beautifully barren landscape. But her improved skills as a writer are most noticeable as she plumbs the depths of the psyches of her main characters. In elegant prose she explores Nora’s continuing obsession over her sister’s death back in America (surely to be explored at greater length in a future novel), the agonies of the Brazil family, who have long depended upon the peat bogs for their livelihoods and who may be intimately involved in the life and death of the second bog body, the personal tragedies of detective Liam Ward that have haunted him, and even the existential secrets that seem to swirl around Cormac.

This is a novel well worth reading – well worth buying in hardcover, in fact-for all those who like their mysteries intricately woven, their protagonists and antagonists complex, their sense of place realistic, and their archaeology informative.

Lake of Sorrows gets four trowels.