The setting is the Kingdom of Burren on the west coast of Ireland in 1510. It is only early in his reign but King Henry VIII in England wants his empire to expand further into Ireland than the four small counties loyal to him. As the book opens King Turlough Donn O’Brien has gone off to fight the Earl of Kildare who is loyal to the English, leaving his eight-month pregnant wife Mara, who is also the kingdom’s investigating judge (the Brehon), at home. On one day Mara goes into an early and difficult labour and the kingdom’s physician Malachy dies a gruesome death. Although only barely recovered from the difficult childbirth Mara must take steps to investigate the death if an injustice is to be avoided. There is no shortage of suspects at least, with many locals having good reason to despise the greedy and incompetent man.
Good historical crime fiction has to provide a decent mystery and an engaging and at least vaguely credible historical setting. Scales of Retribution scores well on both tasks, although perhaps the historical aspects of the novel do slightly outshine the classic whodunnit. Each chapter of the novel begins by outlining some aspect of Gaelic law which is then explored in action and I found this fascinating, especially as comparisons were made to English common law (which Ireland did not adopt in full for a couple of centuries). Perhaps Harrison has selected only those elements of the older legal system that are more benign but it did seem to offer a more sensible approach to many aspects of civil life.
Mara is helped in solving the mystery by the students of the small law school that she operates in the grounds of the castle. There are a half-dozen young men in various stages of study and they use the case (and previous ones if hints dropped in this book are any guide) as a way of supplementing their theoretical learning with practical experience. Suspects include a man whose much loved dog was killed by poison scattered by the physician, several members of the man’s own family and patients who he had ill-treated. A favourite custom of his was to provide incorrect ointment for some patients so that their wounds would not heal and they would need to continue paying him. This had disastrous consequences on more than one occasion and these victims (or their relatives) are also suspects. The boys carry out interviews and other aspects of the investigation and bring all the information back to Mara and the classroom for discussion and dissection, though it is Mara who provides the ultimate solution.
Mara fits in to the sub category of strong female protagonists inserted into historical fiction written by women that I discussed earlier this year. She is the only female Brehon in the country, has a lot of latitude in her professional and personal life and is a very strong character overall but she has a very human side too. For example she is unable to provide milk for her newborn baby and must use the services of a wet nurse (at first her own adult daughter and then a villager) and her jealousy that other women can do this simple thing that she cannot is well portrayed. There are plenty of other nicely drawn characters including several of the students who all have different skills and strengths. I did think there were rather a lot of people to keep track of though and think it would have been nicer for a few less characters which would have enabled the remaining ones to be portrayed in more depth.
I knew absolutely nothing about this book before starting to read it which is always the best way to approach a new author I think. I am delighted to have found this series and will definitely be adding it to my ever growing watch list. Scales of Retribution handles both aspects of its charter, historical detail and mysterious intrigue, well and is gently humorous to round things out nicely.
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A hat tip to regular commenter Kathy D for recommending this series when I was looking for recommendations for female Irish crime writers. On short notice to finish the Ireland reading challenge this year I could only find this latest book in the series but I will keep an eye out for the earlier ones as I really enjoyed both the mystery and historical aspects of this one.
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My rating 3.5/5
Publisher Severn House 
Length 207 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series #6 in the Burren mysteries series
Source I bought it
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