Rev Mother Aquinas

(creator: Cora Harrison)

Cora Harrison
Reverend Mother Aquinas was some 70 years old when we first meet her. When she surreptitiously looked in a mirror, she saw "the same pale, oval face beneath the encasing wimple that had looked back at her for over half a century, the same heavy-lidded green eyes, the straight nose of which she had been proud once, and the eyebrows, still dark, still arched with that slightly haughty expression."

She was in charge of the convent at St Mary's of the Isle in Cork but had been brought up in a wealthy family, the "petted and spoiled only child of a widowed father." She never regretted her decision to enter the convent that she had made at the age of 17, as "it would not have suited her to meekly defer to a husband and to pretend that his judgement was better than her own .... She would never have been content with a life where she would have had to feign stupidity .... She often had thought that she had a good brain for organisation .... It was odd that as a nun she had such scope for stretching her brain and acquiring new skills."

Like her namesake and guide, the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, she had no time for platitudes about "the will of God", which were for her "just an easy way out of excusing man's inhumanity, inefficiency and lack of social responsibility." She took her own responsibilities very seriously, and once embarked on a course, was not one to give up easily. She cared about people, and was very observant, and as it turned out, was to reveal a natural talent for detective work.

Cora Harrison was born in Cork, and took a degree in French and German although she says that her real interest was in history. She went on to work for Linguaphone in London, then took up teaching and became a head-teacher in an English primary school. After her first book was published, she became a full-time writer and she and her husband retired to Kilfenora in the west of Ireland where she lives on a farm near the Burren, an area rich with historical and archaeological sites. This inspired her first successful historical crime series, the Burren mysteries. She has also published many books for children as well as historical mysteries for adults. She has a son, a daughter and a grandson.

A Shameful Murder (2015)
A Shameful Murder is set in Cork in 1923, a city embroiled in floods and civil war. It describes how when Reverend Mother Aquinas finds the body of Angelina Fitzsimon, the apparently privileged daughter of a prominent Cork citizen, on the river bank, it at first appears that the girl had drowned. But the marks on her throat lead Mother Aquinas to conclude she was strangled and thrown in the river. So she sends for one of her former pupils, Police Sergeant Patrick Cashman, to investigate.

Angelina's father and brother are not unduly worried about her death, and, since her mother is in the local lunatic asylum, no-one, except Mother Aquinas and Sgt Patrick, seems to care too much who killed her. When the autopsy reveals that the dead girl was three months pregnant, the case takes on a sinister new angle, especially since she was due to inherit a sizable fortune on her twenty-first birthday in three months' time.

The author is an accomplished writer who keeps the reader interested throughout as she vividly brings to life the realities of civil war, the poverty of slum life and the horror of the local lunatic asylum. With quotes from Thomas Aquinas at the head of most chapters, we learn more and more about Mother Aquinas as the story progresses and our understanding of Sgt Patrick (who had come from a very deprived family and for whom Mother Aquinas was "conscious of a ridiculous feeling of maternal pride when she thought back to the undersized barelegged little boy, dressed in filthy and torn clothes" that he once had been) and of Eileen, Mother Aquinas's young friend (who was an idealistic journalist but also a Republican fighter) grows. There are effective portrayals too of wealthy Joseph Fitzsimon, the supposed father of the dead girl, and of Mother Aquinas's friend, the amiable Dr Sher, who believes that the dead girl was only 17 and not the 21 that her father had claimed. It is this suggestion that puts Mother Aquinas on a track that endangers her life but leads to her eventual unmasking of the murderer.

So the author is good on people, even if at first, despite the floods and the fighting, there is not as much exciting action as you might expect. But our interest is held throughout and Mother Aquinas "was guiltily conscious that lurking in the back of her mind was a hope that Patrick might bring her another problem in the future. After all, she thought .... St Thomas Aquinas himself said that reason in mankind was like having God in the world. Her patron saint would approve of her using her brain."

A Shocking Assassination (2016)

A Shocking Assassination is set in Ireland in 1924. It gets off to a dramatic start as at the very moment when Reverend Mother Aquinas is buying buttered eggs in the Cork city market, the city engineer, James Doyle, is assassinated. Although no one saw the actual killing, a young reporter named Sam O'Mahony is found standing close to the body, a pistol in his hand, and is arrested and charged.

Following a desperate appeal from Sam's mother, who is convinced of her son's innocence, Mother Aquinas agrees to investigate. She had noticed just before the shooting "a man in a belted raincoat with a slouch hat pulled well down over his face" who had suddenly vanished. Did this suggest a possible Republican connection? Or was Doyle's death linked to his corrupt practices in the rebuilding of the city, burned down more than a year ago by the Black and Tans?

It requires lots of lengthy conversations before Mother Aquinas finally gets to the bottom of the matter, and it is all rather slow moving, except for a gripping section when Sam's Republican girl friend Eileen plans and carries out his dramatic escape from prison. But even here the author keeps cutting away from the dramatic action to less interesting scenes elsewhere, thereby reducing rather than increasing the sense of excitement.

At one point Mother Aquinas almost gets herself murdered but remains quite unperturbed. She is more worried when she is urged to lie to save Sam's life. This she refuses to do. She remains an interesting character and the Irish background is convincingly described, but it does not make as exciting a read as you might suppose and the ending is not a very satisfying one.

Death of a Novice (2018)
Death of a Novice describes how the sudden death of Sister Gertrude, a young novice nun, raises a series of puzzling questions. The old Reverend Mother had been delighted with her new entrant to the convent as she had been well-educated, had had useful experience working for an accountant and had an appealing sense of humour. But one autumn morning, she is found dead inside a small wooden shed, just beside the river - and there i
s a diagnosis of alcohol poisoning. How could this have happened?

The Reverend Mother unearths some strange anomolies, including the fact that Gertrude's father had died of a similar cause not long before. And was there a possible Sinn Fein connection? It turned out that two of the other novices had been carrying messages for Sinn Fein.

It is yet another occasionally violent yet often surprisingly unexciting story set in Cork, this time in 1925, an important date that is strangely only mentioned in the book's blurb and not in the text! Young Eileen, an ex-pupil of the Reverend Mother's, who had turned down the possibility of university in favour of joining the Republicans, but had subsequently turned away from them, had found herself coerced into joining a violent attack on a British base, but is now determined to help Reverend Mother discover the truth. And so they do, but only after a great deal of what one of the characters describes as "talk, talk, talk".

So, despite the reappearance of old friends such as the teasing Dr Scher and the friendly ex-pupil Inspector Cashman who had worked his way up the system from a very deprived background, and the introduction of some new interesting nasty characters such as the glib Raymond Roche and the slightly sinister Miss Mary MacSwiney, a shrilly dogmatic Irish Republican enthusiast, who ran a school where all the instruction was in Irish, although she herself spoke with an educated English accent, the story seems to unfold very slowly and at times struggles to hold the interest. The ending is once again disappointing.

Other books in the Reverend Mother series are:
Beyond Absolution (2018), A Gruesome Discovery (2018), and Murder at the Queen's Old Castle (2018). I shall not be reviewing them.

The author has her own website.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


A Shameful Murder cover
The brooding cover well suggests trouble ahead.
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