Sunday, May 5, 2013

"The Book of Killowen"

Set mostly in Ireland, Erin Hart’s archaeological crime novels (Haunted Ground, Lake of Sorrows, False Mermaid) have earned praise as “emotionally and intellectually gorgeous,” (Publishers Weekly), “exceptionally crafted” (Library Journal), and “intelligent, eerie, utterly compelling” (Jacquelyn Mitchard).

Hart applied the Page 69 Test to her latest novel, The Book of Killowen, and reported the following:
From page 69: and there a chair, or a table with a vase of flowers, that beautifully set off the paintings. What was it like to have such an eye, Stella wondered, thinking of her own drab sitting room with its insipid wallpaper and matching suite.

The young man left her alone while he went upstairs, giving her a chance to look around. The paintings in the front room were angry seascapes, thick-painted stormy skies and waves and weather, the paint applied with such passion that you could almost hear the surf. Not just grays and blues and greens, but also shades of yellow, brown, and purple. Stella went up close, and studied the nearest canvas. How did a person work at close range like this, and understand what effect the brush strokes would have at a distance? There was mystery in it, how the eye perceived the parts and the whole. She glanced up the stairs and saw no sign of the young man returning. So she made a quick round of the ground floor, from the rooms in front with their large casement windows that looked over the street, to the back rooms—a galley kitchen stocked with wine glasses, coffeemaker and tea urn, industrial dishwasher. The kitchen adjoined a tiny room that functioned as an office, with desk, file cabinets, and a glowing laptop. On the laptop screen was a spreadsheet with recent sales to museums. Stella had to stifle a curse as she glimpsed the number of zeroes behind each figure. She slipped from the room and took up her previous position just as the young man appeared again at the top of the stairs.

“Mairéad says she’ll talk to you in the studio. I’m sorry I neglected to introduce myself—Graham Healy—I’m her assistant.”

Stella followed him up a graceful cascade of pale marble held in place with a wrought-iron railing. Orchestral music poured down from above, louder and louder as they traveled upward, past the living areas on the first floor, all the way up to a garret at the very top of the house, transformed by a bank of windows on the north wall into a painting studio. A whiff of mineral spirits assaulted the nostrils, and music blared loudly from speakers all around the room, filling the airy space with the throb of violins and cellos, the crash of cymbals and booming kettle drums. Mairéad Broome signaled the young man to turn down the music, and as he did so, Stella’s gaze traveled through an open doorway to a bedroom where the walls, sheets, and furniture were all stark white. Amid the rumpled luxury of bedclothes she spied a few discarded garments—his and hers, from every appearance.
The character in this scene is Stella Cusack, the Garda detective who becomes the third protagonist in The Book of Killowen. She’s just arrived at a Georgian house in the center of Dublin to interview the wife of a man whose body has been found in the boot of a car buried in a Tipperary bog. The wife, Mairéad Broome, is an artist and—as this passage makes clear—a suspect in her husband’s brutal murder. Stella’s got her own problems (wandering husband, stroppy seventeen-year-old daughter), which aren’t outlined here, but I think this passage is an early glimpse of the way she approaches her work, and offers an insight into her powers of observation. I think Stella’s own troubles allow her to see all the messy layers of other people’s everyday lives, and enable her to read situations like this for nuances and interactions between people that will help in her investigation. Some readers have very little patience for descriptive writing; I’ve met people who admit that they just skip over passages like this. But description is absolutely essential to my kind of story. I especially love showing what physical spaces reveal about the people who inhabit them. I hope this passage shows how setting can underscore and illuminate character, both the observer and the observed.
Learn more about the book and author at Erin Hart’s website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue