This combination of murder mystery, James Joyce short story, Irish bar yarn, and folklore is very charming. But what stands out most for me are the occasional soaring flights of Irish-infused prose that have an extraordinary power of both conjuring a place and enchanting the reader.
Mahony, 26, is a petty thief who grew up in a harsh Dublin orphanage, having been abandoned there as an infant. Upon the death of a nun there in charge of his case, one of the priests gives him a note in an envelope inscribed “For when the child is grown.” It reads:
“Your name is Francis Sweeney. Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co. Mayo. . . . For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you.”
Mahony decides to skip parole and return to the village of his birth, Mulderrig (an imaginary village set in County Mayo), to find out about his mother and what really happened to her.
The plot shifts between 1950, when Mahony was born, to 1976, when he returns to Mulderrig. Mulderrig, the author writes, is a place like no other:
“Here the colors are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don’t want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?”
And about the town the author asks:
“Didn’t St. Patrick himself admire Mulderrig’s trees whilst chasing troublesome snakes about the place? And didn’t he bless the forest as he lashed through the undergrowth?”
After a storm in Mulderrig, the author writes:
“In the field a flyblown sheep is lullabied by gentle breezes, her rinsed wool lifting. She’s an earthbound cloud! . . . The crows picking over the flooded fields are dancing the fandango and the farmers that applaud them are their biggest fans.”
Mulderrig is magical for another reason. It’s inhabitants include both the living and the dead, and Mahony sees them all. The dead characters are almost as real as those who are living, and just as delightful. They are always close to someone like Mahony, the author writes:
“The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales, which the dead just yearn to fill. For the dead have second-hand stories to share with you, if you’d only let them get a foot in the door.”
The village harbors some evil individuals bent on revenge but also some brave and loving people who are dedicated to justice. The good people in the village are drawn to Mahony just as the dead are, and they all endeavor to help him. When Mahony comes to Mulderrig, the dead know they will finally be recognized: “They only want to be seen.”
Mahony’s primary partner in his quest to find out what happened to his mother is the woman who lives in the boarding house where he takes up residence. Mrs. Cauley is a former actress – “once one of the greatest actresses to grace the stage of the Abbey Theatre” – who still has a flair for drama and performance, and who immediately takes a shine to Mahony. The feeling is mutual; Mahony comes to adore both her and her deceased former lover, Johnnie, who watches over Mrs. Cauley.
Mr. Cauley explains to Mahony, “Orla Sweeney was the wild bad girl of the village. By the time she was sixteen she was knocked up, unwed, and Mulderrig’s dirty little secret.” No one knew who the father was. Many villagers hated her because she refused to live by the rules, and she tempted the men away from their wives.
The village girls all look at the handsome, dark-eyed newcomer in much the way their fathers must have looked at Orla. Even the older women find themselves smiling at him. His charm beguiles them, but not all of them; not the ones who remember his mother and wanted her gone.
Mrs. Cauley decides the best way to ferret out the truth is to question villagers during auditions for her annual play to raise money for the church. This year the play is to be “The Playboy of the Western World” by John Millington Synge. [“The Playboy of the Western World” is set in a pub in County Mayo during the early 1900s. The comedy tells the story of a lonely dreamer named Christy Mahon who wanders into a pub, claiming that he has killed his father.] She tells the villagers that “Mahony here has agreed to grace our stage as our very own Dublin playboy.” The excitement of someone new and the opportunity to be in a play with him brings out the crowds. And when he comes out on stage, they shout: “Here he is now. Here’s himself.”
Sure enough, the truth starts coming out in small bits, as the list of suspects for Orla’s murder shortens. Mrs. Cauley’s “investigation team” is joined by Shauna, who takes care of the boarding house and who is falling for Mahony, and Bridget Doosey, the remarkable woman who works for Father Quinn, the smarmy corrupt priest of the village.
As they try to come up with the possible guilty party, Bridget asks: “Who would Orla really annoy?” Mrs. Cauley responds with her dead-on powers of observation: “The sanctimonious, the bigoted, and the pious.” A man who embodies all three traits, Father Quinn, tries to lead the villagers to shun Mahony. As Mrs. Cauley explains to Mahony: “Fear, guilt, and superstition, Mahony, it’s a fine way to steer the herd. It always has been.”
She says further: “It is a truth universally unacknowledged that when the dead are trying to remember something, the living are trying harder to forget it.”
Meanwhile, Shauna doesn’t want to be thinking about Mahony all the time, but can’t help it: “She’s put him out like a cat a million times but like a cat he has a habit of slinking back and curling up in the warm corners of her mind.”
As the exciting denouement approaches, you can’t be sure who will make it out of the final confrontation alive.
Discussion: There are some great characters in this book. Mrs. Cauley – hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, funny, and wise – is unforgettable, as is the surprisingly brave, enterprising, and mischievous Bridget. Some of the dead, including Johnny, a little girl named Ida, and the priest who served before Father Quinn, are also great characters.
Evaluation: I wouldn’t identify this primarily as a crime story, although it certainly is that. But it struck me more as Irish storytelling at its finest (of one of the characters, another says, “Ah, watch it. Half the lies [he] says aren’t true.”); an Irish folktale that conveys exuberant celebration of life, and the enduring power of love, by both the living and the dead.
Note: Jim enjoyed this book a great deal also, which is saying a lot given the inclusion of dead characters.
Published in the U.S. by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2017