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by David Dickinson
Constable , January 2008
312 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 1845296036

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is 1905 and the great Anglo-Irish landlords and magnates of Ireland are feeling under pressure from Independence and Reform movements. When a bizarre series of robberies of paintings from a number of great mansions occurs, one particular family, the Butlers, sends for amateur detective Lord Francis Powerscourt to investigate. Powerscourt himself comes from an Anglo-Irish background, although he sold the family estates and left Ireland some years ago. He soon realises that the case in which he is involved is far from simple and is intricately bound up with the politics and tensions, not to mention the overwhelming burdens of history, which are simmering in early 20th century Ireland.

This is the seventh Powerscourt mystery but it does not demand any knowledge of previous books and as a newcomer I found the characters easy to grasp. Dickinson is a historical mystery writer who takes his history very seriously. Vast gobbets of it are thrown at the reader, whether in sometimes very unconvincing conversation or by narrative devices - the two most obvious here are an old and eccentric Butler uncle reading his very lengthy account of Parnell's funeral, and an 'entertainment' put on by various Butler children depicting the miseries and horror of the Famine.

The latter is the most effective of these devices and there is no doubt that the reader will gain some insights into Irish history and in particular the position of the Anglo-Irish landlords in the early 20th century from this book. The problems are that in the first place the insights are all fairly conventional, and indeed the Irish characters mainly run the gamut from A - the comic/drink loving - to B the fanatic. But secondly there is the larger question as to why one would turn to a mystery for a history lesson, even when the history is as dramatic and fascinating as in this case.

Of course these reservations would be swept aside if the plot or narrative were of sufficient quality. Unfortunately while the narrative is brisk enough and sweeps the reader along fairly comfortably, the plot is basically straightforward and contains little to involve the reader. Once again here is a case of a mystery with very little mystery. Dickinson attempts to compensate for this absence with the introduction of some literary over-writing and even a touch of mysticism, but neither of these elements really work. Powerscourt himself, his wife Lucy, and friend and assistant Johnny FitzGerald are likeable enough but lack any strongly distinguishing or interesting features.

DEATH ON THE HOLY MOUNTAIN is adequately engaging as an adventure yarn and certainly supplies a great deal of historical information, but neither of these features (even if one accepts the latter as desirable) is sufficient to compensate for an essential deficiency as far as plot is concerned.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, July 2008

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