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Book Review: False Mermaid by Erin Hart

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The third in the Nora Gavin mystery series, some might assume Erin Hart’s  False Mermaid is the final one, because readers will get some real answers to the questions first raised in Haunted Ground of what happened to Nora’s sister Triona. This is not the end of Nora Gavin, but readers will get some intensely satisfying closure on the mystery of Triona’s murder.

Nora Gavin has gone back to St. Paul from Ireland to try to put some closure to a five-year-old mystery – her sister’s brutal murder. The clues have gone cold, but the whole case comes back to the fore with the discovery of another body. If she could just fit some of the bizarre pieces together, she might finally be able to pin this on her former brother-in-law, proving that he was not the saint he pretended to be. But he’s about to remarry, and she has to act fast if she’s going to prove anything before he leaves the country on his honeymoon.

Things become complicated as she works with detective Frank Cordova, not wishing to stir up feelings that he apparently can’t let go of. She left Cormac behind but only on the map. Frank is going through some serious issues of his own, and he is not taking the rejection very well. His tryst with his partner could complicate the investigation.

Nora wants to see if she can get her parents to talk to her, but she also wants to reconnect with her niece, Elizabeth, who was so very young when her mother was murdered that no one ever told her what had happened. Elizabeth’s confusion puts her on a crash course with the wild Irish countryside that will prove fatal to more than one character.

The story takes the reader on a journey not only from Ireland to St. Paul and back to Ireland, but through time as well, as a colleague of Cormac’s is researching the old Irish fable of the selkie – and a woman who really existed who seems to have disappeared into the sea. The connection weaves a certain air of mistiness into Triona’s story, where these changeling mermaids interconnect with the plant that helps to solve her murder: false mermaid.

The combination of folklore with detailed forensic analysis raises this story to a higher level. Details of botany become key to the investigation, and the bog people that Nora spent the last three years studying suddenly appear much closer to home. The river in St. Paul becomes as central to the story as the sea in Ireland. “The river was where people went to become someone else. To shed all the strictures, the guises they maintained above, in the real world.” (pg. 299) Throughout, the idea of identity is explored again and again, through the obliteration of faces, the shedding of one garment, and the wearing of another.

Nora finally gets some answers, but still, there are questions raised. Will Nora and Cormac take a chance on each other? Will Nora stay in Ireland? Will Nora ever find out the story of the real Triona? Throughout, we feel Nora’s pain and confusion, and at the end there is a sense of relief.

Hart tells this story with a lyrical prose that fits in so well with the other-worldly myths and fantasy that is the lore of Ireland. Her characters are as mesmerized as the reader by the tales of selkies, the ideas of mermaids and changelings. They also explore the language with the reader, such as Cormac teaching Elizabeth a bit of Irish. Elizabeth, at age 11, is exploring her identity, and tries on her Irish name for size. You can almost hear the fiddle playing.

Check out this Author Q&A with Erin Hart where she delves into some of the fascinating themes of False Mermaid, as well as discussing Irish music, setting and details of her research.


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