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British Mysteries

Haunted Ground, Erin Hart, Pocket Star, $7.50.

Haunted Ground has gotten all kinds of acclaim in the past year - it's been nominated for an Agatha and an Anthony award - and it's certainly a worthy and interesting first novel. There's lots of things I liked about it and one thing I didn't: it's too long and needs more suspense. Hart has lots of other things going for her - character development, atmosphere, and nice prose all take her a long way. She's obviously studied at the foot of the master - Elizabeth George - but she needs to take a lesson from some of the master's techniques. Elizabeth George is more than able to generate suspense and tension as well as to create a complex plot full of clues and many viable suspects. Since the viable suspects in Haunted Ground number only three it becomes more of a "whydunnit" than a "whodunnit".

The book opens remarkably - if you've ever thought about an Irish peat bog (or even if you haven't) - Hart is able to transport the reader there simply by writing about it. I learned things I didn't know beforehand without feeling I was being taught - always a good sign - and the two central characters memorably discover a perfectly preserved head (complete with red hair) when a farmer, cutting turf for the winter, hits it with his shovel. Enter Cormac Maguire, an archeologist, and Nora Gavin, a pathologist from America, who excavate the site together and become almost obsessed with discovering whom the head belonged to even though it's several centuries old.

Nora brings her own baggage to the investigation which Hart skillfully teases out throughout the novel, and when she and Cormac are thrown together on an unrelated archaeological excavation near the home of a man whose wife and daughter have disappeared, they get drawn further into local culture, history and drama and they had counted on. There's also a vivid backdrop of Irish folk music (think Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad of Frankie Silver), using the songs as a kind of clue. Had Erin Hart cut about a hundred pages or so from this book and added some of the kind of gritty psychology done with so much finesse by writers like Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie, this would be a far better book. As it is, I'm more than willing to give the second one a try.

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