Erin Hart’s debut novel, "Haunted Ground," opens with Brendan McGann digging for peat to use as winter fuel, a ritual his ancestors have practiced in that very spot in East Galway as far back as anyone can remember. He is used to finding odd bits of pottery, but this day, he finds a woman’s head buried in the bog.
Cormac Maguire, a Dublin archeologist helping out the National Museum, is asked to oversee the excavation in order to preserve this rare find. Dr. Nora Gavin, an American lecturer with Irish roots, has a special interest in bog bodies and is also notified. And so are the police, who are looking for a missing woman married to a local landowner, Hugh Osborne.
The unique properties of the bogs have been known to preserve artifacts, bodies, and even food for centuries and they hold a fascination for archeologists. There is no sign of Osborne’s wife, but Maguire and Gavin get caught up in the mystery of discovering who the centuries old red-haired woman was and how only her perfectly preserved head came to be there. The policeman continues his own, mostly single-minded, investigation.
Yes, there is more than one puzzle to be solved. When asked to stay around in order to complete an archeological survey for Osborne, Maguire agrees and devastating secrets from the modern era are revealed. It seems as if everyone in "Haunted Ground" wrestles with family issues of one sort or another – a marriage in trouble, a lost love, a tragic disappearance, middle-age crisis, family shame, revenge, and more. The conflicts feel real and we want to see them resolved, as well as follow the mysteries to their conclusion.
The subplots reveal Hart’s love for Irish music, infusing the storyline through several characters. Maguire is a flutist in his free time and Nora, it turns out, has a hauntingly beautiful voice. Devaney, the policeman, plays a fine fiddle and uses his music to bond with his daughter. We learn of the small pubs where songs both old and new can be heard. Ah, to be there on a night when the locals play their hearts out, merely for the love of the tune and maybe a pint of Guinness.
In real-life, the entire bog system is under scrutiny by environmentalists because not only is peat a non-renewable resource, the bogs are wildlife habitats, home to species found nowhere else in Europe. There are factions that would have all bog digging banned for commercial use.
My own memories of the green hills of Ireland were stirred by Hart’s description of the lush countryside. I had not thought of the east to west differences in years, the shift from city to villages, the changes in terrain, language, music and even the pace of life. In "Haunted Ground," Hart gives us an insider’s view of the culture and wonderful history of the area. The reader will feel as if Hart is chatting about home.
"Haunted Ground" was nominated for the Anthony and Agatha awards, and won the Romantic Times Best First Mystery award. There have been three additional, very successful books in the series featuring Cormac and Nora.
Please visit www.erinhart.com to see what Hart is up to now. In addition to her writing, she conducts yearly tours in Ireland, with a select few readers. Check into this year’s itinerary for Hart of Ireland. There may still be time to sign up for the September trip.