The alphabet in crime fiction community meme in which I’m proud to participate is now in its ninth week, and we’re at the letter “I.” Thanks, as always, to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for guiding us on our treacherous trip. My choice for this letter is Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder, published in 2004. It’s the fourth of her Torrey Tunet series.
As the story opens, Torrey Tunet, an American translator/interpreter, has just finished a hectic job in Warsaw, and is returning to Ballynagh, an Irish village where she’s rented a cottage. Ballynagh serves as Torrey’s jumping-off point for European interpreting jobs, so she goes there frequently. No sooner does Torrey arrive in Ballynagh when she notices a young girl waiting forlornly in front of a local meat market. The child’s obviously been forgotten and seems frightened, so Torrey takes pity on her. It turns out that the girl, whose name is Sharon O’Faolain, is the niece of one of Torrey’s friends, Megan O’Faolain. Megan is the housekeeper at Gwathney Hall, home of celebrated history writer John Gwathney, so Torrey and Sharon go there. When they arrive at Gwathney Hall, Torrey soon discovers the reason that Megan never came into town to meet her niece: John Gwathney’s lying shot to death in one of the house’s main rooms. Megan soon appears and, after quickly whisking Sharon upstairs and away from the crime scene, she tells Torrey that she’s already called the local police chief, Inspector O’Hare.
When O’Hare arrives, Megan claims that she’d just left the Hall to go meet Sharon when she realized that she’d forgotten her sweater. She came back for it and found Gwathney dead. O’Hare isn’t particularly impressed with Megan’s statement. There are no witnesses to prove she didn’t kill Gwathney, and as he begins to investigate, O’Hare finds that Megan’s got several motives for the murder. One is financial; Gwatheny’s left the bulk of his estate, including the house and a considerable financial fortune, to Megan. Second, there are persistent rumors that Megan has a lover, Liam Caffey, a local potter. Since she’d previously been linked with Gwathney, there’s a good possibility that Megan’s committed the murder so that she and Caffey can spend Gwathney’s money.
Torrey Tunet doesn’t believe Megan’s the killer. She’s a friend of Megan’s and can’t imagine her killing anyone. But there’s more to Torrey’s conviction than that. First, Gwathney’s assistant, Roger Flannery, has inherited one of several paintings that Gwathney owned – a very valuable painting. Flannery’s been struggling financially, and the sale of the painting has made him a wealthy man. Besides, Torrey’s convinced that Flannery stole Gwathney’s last manuscript. She saw the manuscript in Gwathney’s study shortly after the murder, but Flannery’s told the police and press that Gwathney had burned the manuscript. There’s also the matter of Gwathney’s address book and journal. On the morning after the murder, Torrey finds them in Gwathney’s study and “borrows” them to see if they might hold clues to his murder. Shortly after she begins translating the journal from the Greek in which Gwathney had written it, both the journal and the address book are stolen from her cottage. A slip-up by Flannery convinces Torrey that he’s the thief. When Torrey realizes that the journal and the manuscript may hold the key to Gwathney’s murder, she goes on her own search for them, and eventually recovers the journal. Her translation of the journal leads Torrey to another possibility. Gwathney was researching an old piece of Irish history. If the secrets he found came to light, it could spell disaster for a modern-day family. As Torrey investigates each of these possibilities, she finds out more and more about John Gwathney, and that adds to the story’s suspense. Finally, Torrey’s convinced she’s found out the truth, and shares what she’s found with Inspector O’Hare.
O’Hare’s not enthusiastic about Torrey Tunet’s involvement in the case, but the evidence she offers seems clear, and he somewhat reluctantly comes to agree that Megan might not have killed Gwathney. The novel culminates in a dramatic informal hearing, to which Inspector O’Hare invites all of the “interested parties.” At the hearing, we learn that nothing is really as it seems in this case. As the real truth about Megan O’Faolain, Liam Caffey, Roger Flannery and John Gwathney is revealed, we find that each of them has been hiding something. As O’Hare adjourns the hearing for lunch, Torrey takes the opportunity to finish putting the pieces of the puzzle of Gwathney’s death together – just in time to stop O’Hare from arresting the wrong person for the murder.
The Irish Village Murder has an absorbing and believable plot. It’s easy to see how an historian might unearth something that’s so valuable or so potentially damaging that it gets him killed. It’s also easy to believe that a love triangle might lead to murder; so might financial desperation. The suspense is real, and the pace of the action strikes a solid balance; it’s fast enough to keep the reader interested, but slow enough that the characters are developed and the reader can follow the plot. Torrey Tunet, Deere’s sleuth, is interesting and likeable. She’s got a fascinating background, and she’s smart without being insufferable and talented without being anywhere near perfect. She uses her language skills quite effectively and naturally too.
Woven throughout the novel is also the culture of the Irish village. The setting, the characters and the context all reflect Irish village life, and by the time the novel ends, the reader feels as though Ballynagh is real. Even the food, drink and daily habits of the town’s residents are authentic.
The most effective aspect of The Irish Village Murder, though, is the cast of characters. The main characters are believable and interesting. We learn to care about them, and we want to see the murderer caught. Deere makes the characters well-rounded, too. What’s even more engaging, though, is the set of minor characters who populate the village of Ballynagh. They’re quirky, interesting and sometimes funny. For instance, there’s Winifred Moore, a staunchly feminist poet, who lives in the run-down castle that she’s recently inherited. There’s her closest friend (and many say more than that), Sheila Flaxton, a magazine editor who publishes Winifred’s poetry. There’s also Michael McIntyre, a retired sailor who spends each winter in Ballynagh. He knows all of the gossip and is happy to share it with the other patrons of O’Malley’s Pub. And there’s Sergeant Jimmy Bryson, O’Hare’s assistant, who gets all of the gossip from his fiancée, who hears it from her friends. All of these minor characters add richness to the story.
The Irish Village Murder is a cozy mystery. Readers who prefer, for example, noir crime fiction or dark thrillers would probably be disappointed, as this is neither. Yet, it’s not entirely a light, funny murder mystery. There are some dark threads running through the story, and there’s plenty of depth to it. This is the fourth installment in Deere’s Torrey Tunet series, and a few references are made to the earlier books. For instance, reading the first novels in the series might help the reader better understand Inspector O'Hare's ambivalent attitude towards Torrey, as well as Torrey's relationship with her lover, Jasper Shaw. However, that doesn’t detract from an enjoyment of the book. I recommend The Irish Village Murder for those who enjoy cozies with a little depth, and for those interested in modern-day Irish culture.