Irish writer Cora Harrison is a former head teacher who turned to fiction. The author of over two dozen books for young readers, including the London Murder Mysteries series, Harrison is also the author of the critically-acclaimed Burren Mysteries for adults, set in early sixteenth-century Ireland and featuring Mara, a sort of investigating judge or magistrate of the Burren on the west coast of Ireland.
Seven-books strong, with the eighth, Laws in Conflict, due out later this year, Harrison’s historical mystery series has earned consistently high praise from reviewers and readers alike. The Balitmore Sun called the first in the series, My Lady Judge, an “enchanting historical mystery.” Booklist has called the series “richly conceived and authentically detailed,” while Kirkus Reviews praised the “well-drawn characters, …tantalizing mystery and … intriguing look at the surprisingly complex and liberal laws of 1509 Ireland.” Of the fourth in the series, Writ in Stone, Publishers Weekly noted: “Outstanding… artfully combining an insightful and sympathetic detective with a fair-play puzzle.” Sixth in the series, Scales of Retribution, also was commended by Publishers Weekly: “Harrison combines meticulous period detail with a crafty puzzle and a sage, empathetic sleuth.” The seventh, Deed of Murder, out late last year, prompted another Publishers Weekly reviewer to write: “Harrison makes combining a whodunit with the subtleties of Irish law look easy.”
Cora, it is a real pleasure to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. I lived in the west of Ireland for a time, north of where your novels are set. But I love your evocation of place in these books. Let’s begin things with a discussion of your scene of the crime. What’s your connection to the Burren?
The Burren is situated in the west of Ireland, on the Atlantic seaboard. I live a few miles from it.
What things about the Burren make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
The Burren is a unique environment – a limestone plateau surrounded by limestone rocks where a strange mixture of Alpine and Arctic flowers grow side by side. It is a remote place, cut off, to a certain degree by the sea on three sides and by the river Shannon on the fourth. As such it retained its Gaelic heritage later than most parts of Ireland.
Did you consciously set out to use the Burren as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
No, I consciously set out to use it as I wanted to write about the Gaelic or Brehon laws, which lasted longer than anywhere else in this place and it seemed to me that to contrast them with the laws of England in the time of Henry VIII pointed up their unique nature.
As I live very near, I am conscious all the time of my heroine, Mara, the Brehon lawyer, inhabiting this lovely and lightly populated spot and going about her business amid the flowers and the birdsong of the Burren.
How does Mara interact with her surroundings?
Mara, the daughter of a lawyer, has been born and bred in this place. She loves it; she loves the clean air, the wide open spaces and the flowers.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I think that there has been a huge reaction from the emigrants, those who have born in Ireland, or whose parents were born in Ireland, especially those who originate from this spot, but also those who traveled there and have savored its uniqueness.
I have made some mistakes with the Gaelic and have been called to order by some erudite scholars. It is a very difficult language and medieval Gaelic is very strange!
Of your Burren novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I like this passage in the first book My Lady Judge:
“Early summer in the Burren has a glory about it: in the valleys a glory of soft greens, creamy hawthorn blossom and purple foxgloves; on the sparkling limestone of the uplands tiny jewel-like flowers of purple, yellow and blue sprinkled in the grykes between the flat shining slabs of stone. Orange tip butterflies swoop among the cuckoo flowers, vibrant blue-green dragonflies haunt the crystal waters of the spring wells and larks soar high above the contented cattle.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I love Ellis Peters and I think that her sense of place in the Brother Cadfael novels – Shrewsbury and Wales – has influenced me hugely.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I’d stay put here, I think. My wanderings are over!
In my next book, Laws in Conflict, Mara, my Brehon lawyer, visits the city of Galway where English way of life and English laws rule. She comes to rescue a man from the Burren who will be hanged for theft if she cannot persuade the authorities to release him. This provides me with a wonderful opportunity to contrast the mercy and humanitarianism of the Brehon laws with savagery of the laws of England at that time.
Cora, thanks for much visiting Scene of the Crime and for your insights in sixteenth-century Ireland and the Burren.
For more information on Cora Harrison, visit her homepage.