My Lady Judge
by Cora Harrison
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
My Lady Judge is a wise and gentle mystery reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, except that it's set in 1509 Ireland rather than modern-day Botswana. Early sixteenth century Ireland was still governed by Brehon law, a code which prescribed fines payable to the victims of wrongdoing rather than the harsh capital punishments imposed by English law. Legal scholars known as Brehons, some of whom were women, administered justice at community gatherings near outdoor landmarks such as dolmen stones.
Mara is a Brehon and head of a school for Brehons in western Ireland. She has a number of worries on her mind. She has allowed Colman, an intelligent but socially clumsy scholar, to remain as her assistant after completing his course of studies, but his harsh rebukes reduce some of the younger boys to tears. A simple-minded young woman has accused a man of rape who denies having touched her. A cow has been stolen. Various young people have different ideas than their parents about whom they ought to marry.
Where possible, Mara prefers to tactfully guide the people in her charge to do the right thing, rather than invoking legal penalties after someone has broken the law. When young Colman is found murdered at the site of the May Eve festival and no one owns up to the deed, she is horrified.
She knows she must act quickly to find the killer and obtain a confession. "Once she began her enquiries, the whole community would band together like a herd of threatened goats. They would present a solid front of prickly horns and it would be difficult to get behind the defences and establish the truth. She would have to do it, though. Without the truth the community would crumble away." (2007; 311 pages)
More about My Lady Judge from Powell's Books
Other mysteries set in medieval Ireland:
A Secret and Unlawful Killing by Cora Harrison (2008), the second novel in the series that begins with My Lady Judge. More info
Absolution by Murder by Peter Tremayne (1994), the first in a mystery series featuring a nun in seventh century Ireland (see the Medieval Celts page for a complete list of the series). More info
Nonfiction about medieval Ireland:
A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly (1988, 2005). More info
Lordship in Medieval Ireland: Image and Reality edited by Linda Doran and James Lyttleton (2007). More info
The Brehon Law, a multi-part article by Michael Ragan exploring many aspects of the Brehon law.
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