Friday, April 10, 2020

Murder at the Queen's Old Castle by Cora Harrison

When nothing seems to suit for reading, it's time to turn to a favorite series, a favorite country and its history. Cora Harrison's Murder at the Queen's Old Castle is a couple years old, but I never got around to reading this Reverend Mother mystery set in Cork, Ireland in the 1920s.

Seven hundred years earlier, the Queen's Old Castle was a castle at the entrance to the city of Cork. Now it's just a large department store that sells cheap goods and linens. But, Reverend Mother Aquinas once ran in the same circles as its owner, Joseph Fitzwilliam, so he was happy to let her pick through items that had been caught up in the recent flooding of the store. Despite the smell of gas in the store, she's shopping for goods for the school convent, accompanied by one of the store apprentices, fourteen-year-old Brian Maloney. She and the doctor who tends to police cases are both witnesses when Fitzwilliam staggers from his office, and falls over the railing to his death. They're also witnesses when Mrs. Fitzwilliam accuses Brian of killing her husband, saying it was supposed to be her.

Eileen McSweeney, one of Reverend Mother's former students, is also on the scene, along with what appears to be half the population of Cork. Eileen is quick to turn from printer's clerk and delivery girl to reporter, writing down everything she observes, and even doing a little investigating before the police turn up. Dr. Scher knew it was murder and even found a canister of gas. He sent for another one of Reverend Mother's former students, Inspector Patrick Cashman.

Suspicion falls on members of the victim's family. The miserly store owner's entire family worked at the store, long after his money could have provided them with a comfortable living. Only his oldest son, Major James Fitzwilliam, didn't work there. He entered the store just in time to see his father plunge to his death. While the family appears to be suspects, time after time Mrs. Fitzwilliam accuses Brian. As an apprentice, he can only turn to Eileen and Reverend Mother for help.

Murder at the Queen's Old Castle is an unusual mystery in this series, with a complicated ending. Reverend Mother is suffering from a cough and shortness of breath, so everyone comes to her to talk. Once again, Patrick Cashman, Eileen McSweeney, Dr. Scher and Reverend Mother's wealthy cousin, Lucy, bring her their information and consult her. It's Lucy who says, "You usually do know things. You sit here like a spider weaving your web and people bring you little flies of information."

This entry in the series brings back familiar characters. Patrick and Eileen are still young, and they continue to mature. It's a joy to welcome them back. However, the books in the series present an unflinching look at the history of divisions between the poor, the working class and the wealthy in Cork, and the city's history of violence and poor living conditions. The situation of apprentices, deemed fortunate because their parents could buy a job for them, is portrayed with its ugly living conditions.

Cora Harrison's Murder in the Queen's Old Castle, with its unusual, but appropriate, ending is a satisfying mystery in a series that portrays the social conditions in a time between wars. Harrison excels at the historical details of life in the 1920s in Cork, Ireland.

Cora Harrison's website is

Murder in the Queen's Old Castle by Cora Harrison. Severn House, 2018. ISBN 9780727888303 (hardcover), 236p.

FTC Full Disclosure - I bought a copy of the book.


Rosemary said...

Hi Lesa

This sounds interesting, I will see if our libraries have anything by Cora Harrison. My experience of Irish literature to date has been based on Maeve Binchy, Cathy Kelly, Marian Keyes, Edna O'Brian, Seamus Heany, Molly Keane and Elizabeth Bowen. I like all of those, but none of then touches on life in the cities in those days - Keane writes about the old Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and Binchy, Kelly and Keyes all tend to write romances (which i enjoy). And Seamus Heany - well I just love his poetry, and even more now that I have been able to visit Hallaig on Skye (he was the translator of Sorley Maclean's famous poem about the clearances.)

I've been doing a fun thing for my son and daughter-in-law lately - he is working full time in the ambulance service, but she is at home all day as her job is in tourism and that work has of course dried up, and she obviously can't see any of her friends (and she's a massively sociable person). I felt they could both do with something to take their minds of things so I chose a selection of books that I thought they might enjoy - some I'd read and some I'd just read about - and got them delivered direct to their house. They seem to be enjoying them, and choosing books for other people is one of my most favourite things (I've probably told you I always wanted to be a librarian but my mother wouldn't let me?)

I've also started reading a book I bought for my husband ages ago at a Portobello Book Festival (Portobello is a seaside suburb just outside Edinburgh, and some of its residents organise an annual, free, book event over 3 days).

The book is 'Selkirk FC vs the World', a collection of short stories and poems by the football club's first ever Poet in Residence, Thomas Clark. Much of it is in Scots dialect, so I have to take time to get my ear in, but Clark is a great writer and really captures the resigned stoicism/pessimism of the fans of a not very good club in the epicentre of rugby country (Selkirk is in the Borders, where rugby is massive and football most definitely isn't.) The poems and stories are both funny and poignant (and you don't need to know anything about football to enjoy them - my interest in the game is zilch, and to be honest I only picked the book up because Gracie was asleep on my legs and it was the only book I could reach!) Clark was one of four writers-in-residence who spoke at this session at the festival - another writer had worked with an undertaker and another in a brewery. He was an excellent speaker, very modest and dry, and hilarious about the well-known Borders penchant for negativity and dour perseverance.

The only other thing I achieved yesterday was a little article about my friend Russell Jones' book launch - he has just published a new collection of poetry, with illustrations by several comic/graphic artists - and of course he can't have the usual launch, so he is doing a digital one next week. He is very into sci-fi (the literary kind, not - as my husband assumed - the kind where people dress up as Darth Vadar...) and runs a monthly sci-fi night in Edinburgh called Shoreline of Infinity - but he got far more publicity when the Blue Cross (a charity that pays for vets for the pets of people who can't afford the fees) asked him to be their writer in residence for a year. Russell has a spaniel called Pakun who is a bit of a Facebook star, and that year his fame certainly grew!

I've just noticed it's already past 1pm and all I've done so far today is read and bake scones, so I'd better get back to my reviewing.

Have a good day all. Take care.

Lesa said...

Oh, naturally all I focused on in your whole piece was that you baked scones today. I haven't had breakfast yet, Rosemary, and that sounds wonderful. Thank you again, for sharing information about your world. I cannot imagine our American football teams having a writer-in-residence. Well, maybe someone to cover sports, but definitely not a poet. Now, that would almost be science fiction here.

I'm sorry your mother wouldn't let you be a librarian. Anyone who loves to recommend books as you do would enjoy that aspect of our jobs. I think it was a wonderful gift that you gave your son and daughter-in-law.

Cora Harrison writes two series. I love this one about the Reverend Mother in Cork in the 1920s. I haven't yet tried the ones featuring a female judge in the 16th century on the west coast of Ireland, in the Burren region. I really like this series.

Have a good rest of your day, Rosemary.

Gram said...

I have the first book in the series on my library list, but since I do not see it on Hoopla or Overdrive it is one that will have to wait until the library opens again.

Lesa said...

You are going to have an extensive list when your library reopens, Gram. I hope we don't have to wait too long, although our library director suspects mid- to the end of May here.