Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Myth and Murder in Erin Hart's FALSE MERMAID

Erin Hart's third Nora Gavin mystery, FALSE MERMAID, sets a breathtaking pace of suspense and risk for the American pathologist, who has returned to her home state of Minnesota to probe the five-years-ago murder of her sister Tríona. Gavin's insistence on pursuing hints from the past positions her against her own parents, who resist the blame Nora has assigned to Tríona's husband Peter. It also makes her emotionally hazardous to her sister's daughter, Elizabeth, desperate to believe in the innocence of the only parent she has left. And, of course, every successful step she takes into the case pits Nora against the real killer or killers.

Hart's two earlier Nora Gavin novels were set in Ireland, and she is herself an expert in Irish music and frequently visits Ireland. And there's no doubt that moving her series to Minnesota (her own home) takes some of the lush flavor out of this book. Although there are front materials that clearly tie the eventual plot to Irish mermaid myths and song, as well as to Irish terrain, it takes a long time for the action to return to the haunted landscape that Hart wove so beautifully into HAUNTED GROUND and LAKE OF SORROWS. Allowing visits to the Emerald Isle through the eyes of Nora's lover Cormac, left behind there, doesn't quite carry.

That said, though, once you accept the U.S. setting, there's a lively crime novel underway. Nora's got more clues than she realized, and danger when it's in her own family is terrifying. Hart's action writing upholds the book, along with steady hints that Nora's romance with Cormac is not over:
Today was five years since Tríona had gone missing, nearly five years since her almost unrecognizable remains had turned up in an underground parking garage in the trunk of her own car. Nora knew she could not let herself be pulled into the downward spiral that seemed to draw her in whenever she thought of Tríona's murder. Nightmares and flashbacks were not a good sign.

She reached into her pocket for the knot of green hazel Cormac McGuire had woven for her on their last evening together, at a place called Loughnabrone. Lake of Sorrows. A place where a number of people had died, where she had nearly lost her own life. She did not dwell on that thought. What she remembered most clearly from that awful day was the expression on Cormac's face when he saw her hands, her clothes covered in blood. And the relief that washed over his features when she said: Not mine. It's not my blood.
But this time it may be. Peter Hallett, murderer or not, is a dangerous person to cross. And it turns out that sweet Tríona may have been dangerous, herself.

Hart interweaves the plot with speculation about the selkie myths -- the folktales about seals who come up on the land, shed their skins temporarily, and walk on land as beautiful women. Those shed skins, when they fall into the hands of a man who wishes to own the selkie, become the magical items that allow possession. Hart adds mermaid stories to the trove of mystical tales, and Nora's beloved -- himself highly desirous of having Nora back in his live -- finally asks an expert:
"And what does all that mean?"
"In psychological terms, you can see these stories being about women who desire autonomy and equality within marriage, or male fantasies about subjugating the power of the feminine. You can also see them as reflecting male anxiety about abandonment by females. Your choice."
Poor Cormac! His anxiety isn't being helped by occasional glimpses of the danger that Nora is courting, a continent away -- and his own life isn't cooperating in his notion of flying to her side.

But Nora isn't at risk of being consumed by Cormac, or subjugated by him. So as the dangers around her multiply, she at least has a safety route toward him, should she choose to take it.

Not everything can go right in a situation this complex, and it's the powerless who get hurt. Don't count Nora among those who'll give up, though -- Hart demonstrates that a strong bent for scientific reason and an unreasoning but determined belief in finding the truth will work for Nora Gavin.

[See Hart's website for her schedule, and for descriptions of the earlier books.]

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