First published in Ireland in 2013; published by Minotaur Books on March 15, 2016
Decades after the Famine, the owners of large estates in Ireland have agreed (or been forced) to sell their land to the government, part of a plan to give Ireland back to the Irish. Corruption in that process provides one of the plot threads in The Eloquence of the Dead.
The story begins in 1887 with the murder of Ambrose Pollock, a pawnbroker in Dublin. The police, eager to avoid any actual investigatory work, are quick to blame the pawnbroker’s sister, Phoebe Pollock, who has gone missing. The question soon arises whether she is missing or dead.
DS Joseph Swallow investigates Ambrose’s murder and Phoebe’s disappearance. His investigation requires him to consider a robbery, the origin of rare coins that are turning up in Dublin, and a land fraud scheme. The interweaving of these plot elements is sufficiently complex to hold the reader’s interest without becoming convoluted. The story works its way to a conclusion that is satisfying if not particularly surprising.
Certain that his Catholicism will prevent him from rising above his current rank, Swallow wonders whether he should pursue another profession as he chases down a variety of criminals. Swallow is typical of a crime fiction police protagonist in that he has difficulties with relationships, grievances about being underappreciated, and complaints about cops who are more committed to making themselves look good than to catching criminals.
A number of other characters, including detectives and criminals, are given about as much characterization as they need in a murder mystery. One of the stronger characters is Margaret Gessel who, having sold the family land, traveled from Ireland to London, only to be disappointed that her cousin, a prominent politician, is barely acknowledging her existence.
The politics of the time and place add an extra layer of interest to The Eloquence of the Dead. The novel illustrates that some things never change. Power protects power, whether in England and Ireland of the 1880s, or any other place at any other time.
Conor Brady’s prose is above average for a mystery, although about average for Irish crime writers, and well above the prose wielded by American crime novelists (featuring single sentence paragraphs and single page chapters) who too often dominate the market. The writing, characters, and plot make Brady’s second Joe Swallow novel an entertaining read, although I wouldn’t shelve it with the best examples of Irish crime fiction.