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Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center

The Lazarus Bell by Patrick Dunne

August 1, 2017

Tivoli Publishing:  Dublin, Ireland
2006 (PB)

Once again Patrick Dunne has devised a fiendishly clever mystery in this, his second novel featuring contract archaeologist, Illlaun Bowe.  As the story opens, Illaun and her crew are putting the final touches on a salvage project contracted by the city council of her hometown, Castleboyne, Ireland.  To make way for the construction of a new roundabout, she must excavate an ancient graveyard called the Mauldins—a graveyard that provided the last uneasy resting place for medieval lepers as well as 14th Century plague victims.

As so often happens on archaeological excavations, the last day of a project can yield most unexpected results.  In the case of the Mauldins dig, two completely unexpected lead-lined coffins are unearthed.  All the previous burials have either been wrapped in shrouds (the lepers) or simply piled one upon the other (the Black Death victims).  As the larger of the two coffins is lifted from the ground by an hydraulic excavator, it breaks open, spilling black liquid—thought to be “coffin liquor”—on Terry Johnston, one of Illaun’s crew.  Johnston is hurried to the Castleboyne hospital for observation and de-contamination.  Samples of the revolting fluids are sent for analysis to the Center for Research in Infectious Diseases in Dublin.   The second coffin yields an even more startling surprise—not a body but the beautifully painted wooden statue of the Virgin and Child, the nursing Madonna.

At almost the same time as the events at the Mauldins dig are taking place, Arthur Shaw, father of Illaun’s fiancé historian/gardener Finian Shaw, stumbles upon the headless corpse of a brutally mutilated young woman—almost certainly a recent African émigré.   While the two incidents would seem to be totally unrelated, ensuing events seem to bring that reasonable conclusion into doubt.

While Illaun and Finian work together to solve the mystery of the buried statue, hoping to fit it logically into the religious history of Castleboyne, all hell seems to break out around them.  Terry Johnston dies a horrible death and fear of the Black Death—bubonic plague—reborn throws the local community into a panic.  The panic grows more intense when a young local boy, who had been playing in the Mauldins graveyard after the coffin spill, becomes ill and he too dies.  Castleboyne is put under quarantine and attempts are made to harm or kill Illaun as she is blamed for the disasters befalling the town.

The situation becomes even more untenable, if that is possible, when the analysis of the coffin liquor shows no sign of bubonic plague, and the post mortems of the two victims would strongly suggest the presence of a rare disease thought to be restricted to sub-Saharan Africa.   Panic over Bubonic Plague is quickly replaced by an ugly outbreak of anti-immigrant hatred when the post mortem of the mutilated young African woman carried the contagion.

While puzzling through the mysterious history of the buried Madonna, Illaun works with her policeman friend Matthew Gallagher and the enigmatic Afrikaner pathologist Peter Groot to resolve the riddle of the mutilation murder and how it tied into the deaths linked to the Mauldins excavation.

As in the previous Illaun Bowe mystery, A Carol for the Dead, author Dunne weaves a complex and compelling tale, seamlessly working in threads of Irish folklore and history, to give depth and breadth The Lazarus Bell.

Three trowels for this second Illaun Bowe mystery.