My Lady of the Bog by Peter Hayes
As I have often muttered darkly into my beard when writing these reviews, it’s a case of travelling in hope that the next book will turn out to be a gem rather than the paste replica currently in view. Well the hope has been rewarded with a genuinely innovative piece of writing in My Lady of the Bog by Peter Hayes (The Permanent Press, 2014). This is one of those pleasingly unclassifiable books that flirts with genres as if they had no meaning (my thanks to the publisher for having the cojones to bring this to the market). The subtitle on the jacket tells you with a perfectly straight face that this is An Archeo-Forensic Mystery. I suppose I should explain what that means.
Set in Dorset, a young man is out digging peat when he uncovers a shoe. As this is not an uncommon find, he’s not emotionally prepared to discover a foot inside the shoe. Once he recovers from the shock, the police are called. After all, what little the diggers can see of the body suggest it’s only been in the ground for a short time. As a precautionary measure, the police also call for expert advice and this brings Xander Donne to the scene. He’s an American working a fellowship at Exeter University and knows a thing or two about bodies found in bogs. His first estimate that this is two to three thousand years old proves wrong. We’re only talking hundreds, not thousands of years. But nothing can change the stunning impact of the preserved body. In life she would have been magnificently beautiful. Even in death, she’s the epitome of exoticism and wonder — a fact that has a profound effect on our rather inhibited academic.
As the police dig into the peat to free the body they make two discoveries. First, the body was staked to the ground. The pins have what appear to be runes carved into the wood. Second, there’s literally a treasure trove under the body, a fact that immediately brings the entire find within the jurisdiction of the local coroner who has the responsibility of deciding who now owns the rather valuable objects. When everything portable has been removed to the hospital where the coroner is based, we then have four further events of significance. Xander finds a book among the physical treasure and immediately sends it off to his ex-professor at Oxford for translation. He and the coroner remove the pins from the body. That night both Xander and the coroner report vivid dreams. When the police come to the hospital the next morning to take possession of the treasure, they find it has been stolen. Six weeks later, the man who has translated the book is cut to pieces with a sword.
So as a matter of archaeology or anthropology, depending on which ology you prefer, there’s the question of how this beautiful woman ended up bound and pinned to the ground in a Dorset bog. There’s also the contemporary mystery of who stole the treasure trove and how, if at all, this is connected to the death of the man who translated the book which had been buried with the body. The answers are completely entrancing as the book fails to decide whether anything supernatural is going on. After all, dreams are notoriously unreliable source of information. The mind also plays strange tricks on readers. Some are immediately sucked into the content and feel as if they are actually present at events being described. But, of course, our rational minds dismiss the possibility that physical objects like books can be enchanted, just as the notion of a curse on anyone removing the pins from a body is ridiculous.
So there you have it. The author plays a very skillful game, nicely blending police procedural with historical mystery, adventure yarnery, witchcraft, spells and curses, and modern thriller as our hero, later accompanied by the wife of the murdered translator, confront demons in their our psychological make-up and from the past. My Lady of the Bog is an entrancing read and recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.