Top critical review
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Just not very good
on 21 October 2009
I am obviously conscious that tastes are different in reading as in everything else. I don't doubt the genuineness of other reviewers' pleasure in this book, but I thought that it would be useful to those considering buying it to know that there are alternative views. So let me explain why I gave up after the first five chapters; a point before the crime has been discovered (the fact that it has already taken place has been rather unsubtly telegraphed along with a full list of possible suspects) let alone solved.
Firstly, the author can't write. Her much vaunted descriptions of the west of Ireland basically consist of ensuring that the words 'clints' and 'grykes' appear at least once on each page - and if you want to know what these terms mean then I recommend going directly to the geological dictionary from where the author's research assistant obtained them. When it comes to people she is even worse. Malachy, the skilled but flawed doctor/herbalist character obligatory in this genre, is described on first appearance as 'a strong-looking, handsome man of forty' and then two pages later and after just a few minutes perfunctory dialogue he has become 'no more than forty, and yet beginning to look like a man nearing sixty'. Admittedly he has a teenage daughter, which I can confirm from experience has a definite ageing effect, but surely not twenty years per conversation.
The historical detective has to have a setting of course. This one is sixteenth-century, female and Irish. They've all been done before including the female Irish combination. The first, scene-setting chapter of the book ends in a rather laboured joke, the punchline of which indirectly refers to Sherlock Holmes, presumably as some sort of comparison. The one thing that this novel's protagonist and Holmes have in common is that they are both professional investigators; a refreshing change from the various amateur historical detectives who always seem to combine anachronistic deductive skills with astonishing levels of competence in whatever their day job happens to be. However, for a judge Mara does not convince as having a terribly good grasp of legal priciples. In settling one case, seemingly very much bound up with the crime about to be committed, she declares both that there is no case to answer and in the next breath that the case against the accused is not proven. I fail to see how those two things can exist at the same time, however long ago or far away the legal system involved; you can't prove or disprove a case that doesn't exist.
Anyway, clearly I didn't like it. I suggest that you read all the reviews and make your own mind up.