Berkley Publishing Group, New York
I am writing this review from the cozy confines of An Café Liteartha, a combination café/Irish bookstore in the town of Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland. I note this at the outset, note as a place-name dropper nor as a segue into a shameless promotion for MVAC Director Jim Gallagher’s absolutely fantastic walking tour of the Dingle Peninsula—a tour of which I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part. No, the reason I mention this is that Lyn Hamilton’s fourth volume in her Lara McLintoch series (the most recent volume, African Quest, was reviewed here several months ago) takes place in the Dingle Peninsula. As in her earlier archaeological mysteries, The Celtic Riddle combines a thorny plot with vivid characterization and a wonderful sense of place.
An Irish industrialist, Eamon Byrne, has died of apparently natural causes, and in his last will and testament, he has left a portion of his estate to Alex Stewart, retired friend of antiques dealer and series heroine, Lara McLintoch. The balance of the estate is parceled out to Eamon’s dysfunctional family members, which include three daughters, two insufferable sons-in-law, and a shrewish wife. In his last days, Eamon had concocted a treasure hunt riddle that he hoped would force the members of his feuding family to work together in common cause to find the treasure and once again bring harmony back to those he loved. The riddle is based on the “Song of Amairgen,” a piece of early Celtic poetry ascribed to a Merlin-like figure in Irish mythology. Our tour group learned of Amairgen, who championed the Celts in their struggles with the Tuatha de Danaan, the people who lived on Irish soil prior to the Celtic “invasion,” and his song, from Amantha Murphy, a storyteller who joined us for an evening and a day as we explored the eastern stretches of the Dingle Peninsula—Oops! Another shameless promotion of the Gallagher tour!
As the treasure hunt begins, the bodies begin to pile up—but they are not those of Eamon’s family, the most likely victims in a “cozy” murder mystery like this. Lara steps in to investigate because she fears that her friend Alex may be the next victim.
As I hinted earlier, the mystery is an engaging one, with an appropriately surprising denouement. But Lyn Hamilton’s vivid descriptions of the breathtaking Dingle Peninsula landscape and its inhabitants are very evocative, and I quote here a brief passage describing Lara’s search of the Dingle countryside—a description that I can assure the reader is very, very accurate:
The Dingle is a peninsula only about thirty miles long, and is often described as a finger that juts out into the sea, the farthest point west in Ireland. To me, though, the Dingle is not so much of a finger jutting out from a hand, but a primordial creature, mountains for its spine, its undulating torso slippinginto the sea so that only the tip can be seen as the Blaskett Islands off shore, its head way down in the depths. In reality, it has four mountain areas, theSlieve Mish Mountains where the finger joins the hand, as it were, the Strad-bally Mountains, Mount Brandon on the north side, and Mount Eagle to thesouthwest. In between are fabulously beautiful but isolated valleys, rocky gorges, and breathtaking vistas. Roads through the mountain passes rise up steep inclines, then drop precipitously to the coast, where there are dozens of little towns and hundreds of ancient sites. (p.136).