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Mara is the highest judge in the kingdom of the Burren in Ireland in the 1500s. She is also the only woman jurist in the whole country. She owns an excellent law school that she inherited from her deceased father where she has promising students. She has a daughter and a fine grandson and on top of that, the king of her clan is asking for her hand in marriage. Things are going well for Mara.
At the feast of Michaelmas when all the people from every clan are celebrating, having a fine time and contributing their share of the taxes to their clans, one of the stewards collecting the money for the MacNamaras is found dead. Since no one claims the crime as his own, which would have only brought a fine upon him for accidental killing, it is up to Mara and the students in her law school to investigate and find the guilty party.
Soon yet another dead body is found under strange circumstances. Was it a suicide or is it connected to the first murder? No one is saying and so Mara has another mystery to solve.
It is very strange for no one to claim the killing, as the law in Ireland was quite specific that if a man accepts his guilt, then a fine according to the dead man's worth is paid and all is well. But if no one accepts the guilt for the killing, it is then called a "secret and unlawful killing" and the guilty party could be shamed and banished from the kingdom and his family and home. As time passes, Mara and her students find more than a few men with reasons to have murdered both the dead men, and so Mara lets nothing stop her from investigating the horrible crimes.
A SECRET AND UNLAWFUL KILLING is mainly about the rules of law and marriage in Ireland in the 16th Century. Ireland was an independent nation at the time, with its own surprisingly liberal legal code. Most of this book is a lecture that tells the readers about the very interesting differences between the rules of law and marriage of the time and those that we all know in our own period.
But unfortunately, as good a job as this book does in teaching its readers about the medieval Irish legal system, it is supposed to be a murder mystery in which two murders are investigated. It does very well expanding the reader‛s knowledge of medieval law but it has almost no value as an entertainment centred on a double murder investigation.
I found that reading this book was difficult. Ms Harrison is a writer who starts a story in her main character's point of view, letting the readers in on every single passing thought, every small reason for a smile, every iota of pride that she took in her clothing, even when dead bodies are laid out in front of her. And so it goes all through the book, that is, until the single moment that Mara figures out who was guilty of a crime. Then all of a sudden, the readers are shut out of the main character's thoughts. I suppose Ms Harrison thought it a clever ruse, but I find this to be a trick unworthy of any good writer.
In fact there was a whole long chapter where Mara interviews the guilty party, but not once does she think of his name, who he is, or why his being guilty creates terrible problems for the people she cares about. Unlike every other chapter in the book, here the connection between the readers and the thoughts of the main character is cut off. Others might think this a cute way to keep the suspense high, but I found it to be a terribly frustrating ploy.
Harrison might have had hopes of pins and needles for the readers, but I was annoyed. After having to go through pages of the story where absolutely nothing is learned about the murders, by the end of this so called clever chapter, I had no interest in finally finding out who the guilty party was. I had lost interest and respect for the book. As a reader, being played with by a writer does not interest me. Having a solid, well-paced story, good clues and clever ideas on solving the murders is more than sufficient a reason for this reader to appreciate a book.
I wish A SECRET AND UNLAWFUL KILLING had been advertised as a piece about the surprisingly liberal laws of the medieval period in Ireland. I might have picked up this book and would have not been completely let down. But as it was advertised as a murder mystery, with all of the shortcomings and last minute attempt to make it into a romance, it completely wasted my time.
Reviewed by A.L. Katz, August 2008
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