Discoveries

February 12, 2010

After nearly 30 years at Booklist, the greatest pleasure of my job continues to be discovering a new writer before the rest of the world and watching a career develop over time. One of my most satisfying discoveries has been Erin Hart, a Minneapolis writer whose third novel, False Mermaid, is published this month. Like her previous books—Lake of Sorrows (2004) and Haunted Ground (2003)—the novel stars Nora Gavin, a Minneapolis pathologist living in Dublin, where she becomes involved in criminal investigations drenched in Irish history. Yes, this is a mystery series, but its reach goes far beyond genre. Gavin is a founder of Minnesota’s Irish Music and Dance Association, and the culture of traditional Irish music is integral to her stories, not merely as set decoration but as a key, plot-driving mechanism. Similarly, the folklore and mythology of Ireland give the novels a thematic depth and metaphorical richness that sustain the reader far beyond questions of whodunit.

Hart’s debut, Haunted Ground, begins with a stunning set-piece. Two brothers “cutting turf” in an Irish peat bog discover the head of a beautiful, red-haired woman, decapitated and perfectly preserved in the decay-resistant bog. Who is she and how long has her head been in the ground? What follows is a beguiling mix of village mystery, gothic suspense, and psychological thriller. Working with an Irish archaeologist, Cormac Maguire, who becomes her lover, Nora tracks back through time to solve the mystery, as Hart dispenses fascinating snippets of history concerning peat bogs, archaeological methodology, and the devastating effects on the Irish people of the Cromwellian resettlement in the seventeenth century. Simultaneously, Hart breathes life into local history the way Graham Swift did in Waterland; reinvents the Daphne du Maurier formula for gothic suspense; and brings new texture and psychological acuity to the usual suspects from the generic village mystery.

Hart’s second novel, Lake of Sorrows, again concerns bodies found in peat bogs, and once more the resulting investigation leads the reader into another detail-rich, character-centered mix of local history and human relationships. In her new book, though, Hart works fresh soil: Nora returns to Minneapolis to attempt to solve the seven-year-old murder of her sister. Meanwhile, Cormac, still in Ireland, becomes ensnared in the centuries-old disappearance of a woman believed to be a selkie (a woman who becomes human when she loses her sealskin). Skillfully intermingling both plot strands, Hart again imbues what might have been a straightforward mystery with an overlay of myth. The feminist view of the selkie’s plight—a woman torn between the loyalty to her human family and the lingering need for a return to the independence of the sea—ultimately informs both stories, each drawing meaning and metaphor from the other.

Few writers combine as seamlessly as Hart does the subtlety, lyrical language, and melancholy of literary fiction with the pulse-pounding suspense of the best thrillers. For comparisons to Hart’s work, look to such mainstream novelists as Canadian Donna Morrisey (Kit’s Law, Downhill Chance), who also use local history as the lever with which to pry open the human heart.

Bill Ott is the editor and publisher of ALA’s Booklist.