Kilmoon by Lisa Alber follows a Californian who ventures back to Ireland to meet her father, but her arrival coincides with a string of violent murders, making her both a suspect and a victim (available March 18, 2014).
The small town of Lisfenora, Ireland, cheats poverty by virtue of its annual matchmaking festival, featuring the enigmatic man known as Liam the Lion. The festival has seen the town through the years where the rest of the nation’s economy went bust, and so Liam’s skills have made him an object of hero-worship to the locals and to those whose lives have been bettered for his choices, as well as an object of curiosity for everyone else.
One of the latter, in 1975, is a fledgling American journalist named Julia Chase, who gets too close to her subject before fleeing back to California and giving birth to a child she raises with a husband, Andrew, who becomes increasingly embittered as the years progress. Nearly thirty years later, Julia’s daughter arrives in Lisfenora to unravel the mystery of her parentage, which Lisa Alber explores with a sensitivity not often seen in your average crime novel:
Merrit’s life, her mom’s life – how different they would have been if Liam had fought for her mom. But he hadn’t, and Merrit had to know why. Since childhood, she’d yearned to fill the void where the unsaid and the murky festered beneath her mom’s smile. Merrit couldn’t recall when she’d realized that her mom was a woman who hid her unhappiness well most of the time. Nor could Merrit recapture the moment she first noticed that Andrew treated her like a houseguest who’d overstayed her welcome, only that it hadn’t mattered until after her mom’s death. All she knew was that the answers lingered along Lisfenora’s cobbled lanes, along which Liam had walked arm-in-arm with her mom.
Uncertain of how to announce herself to her biological father, Merrit finds herself engaging more intimately in town life than she’d expected as she tries to subtly gather information about the reclusive matchmaker. Unfortunately, her clandestine quest causes her to fall under the influence of the town blackmailer. When a murderer strikes, Merrit quickly becomes prime suspect. It soon becomes clear, however, that Merrit isn’t the only person in town with a reason to kill.
Kilmoon is an unusual murder mystery in that it takes all the genre tropes and subtly shifts them, blurring the lines of what is good and what is bad, what is wrong and what is right, to create a novel that is both more challenging and emotionally satisfying than expected. There is the small-town inspector whose loyalties are divided even before he’s kicked off the case, suspicious deaths that may or may not qualify as murders, villainous heroes and victimized bad guys. No one comes out with their hands clean, but no one comes out entirely unredeemed. And at the center of it all is the larger than life figure of the matchmaker, whose philosophy is so central to the book:
Liam gentled the same smile at her that he bestowed on his petitioners. His expression said everything, and in that moment, she understood the secret to his matchmaking success. He exuded compassion and love—could it be love?—yes, love of humanity in general, an acceptance of foibles and weaknesses in their myriad forms, and an innate awareness of those before him. She’d heard it said that he was charmed, and now she believed it.
Another thing I really appreciated about this book was the effort Ms. Alber made at localization. Too often, books set in countries – sometimes even cities – foreign to the author seem merely like an idealized version of where the author is actually from. Kilmoon reads like an authentic version of events. The setting is lushly described, but more importantly, the little nuances of everyday life, from Kevin calling his father “old troll” to the details of cafe high teas, are perfectly noted. It is always refreshing to read a murder mystery that is well-researched and well-plotted, that explores as well the mysteries of the human heart.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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