False Mermaid is the common name of a marsh plant that may hold the key to an unsolved murder in a desolate boggy area by the Mississippi in Minnesota. The term can be stretched to cover the legend of the selkies that is still recounted in a seal harbor off the West coast of Ireland. In Erin Hart’s murder mystery, False Mermaid, Nora Gavin, an American pathologist who studies bog people, cannot let go of the horrific murder of her younger sister and her conviction that her brother-in-law is to blame.
Nora was the serious sister, following in her scientist father’s footsteps. Triona was the dreamer, fantacist, actress, a beauty in love with the magic in life. She left behind a six-year-old daughter and devastated parents—and the puzzle of who bashed her face in and stuffed her body in the trunk of her car. Nora leaves a committed lover in Dublin and decamps for Minnesota and home, after three years away, searching for closure and proof of guilt to nail Triona’s handsome husband.
Villains and plots abound. Nora reconnects with a troubled detective who keeps the cold case alive and nurtures a major crush on her. The widower announces he is about to remarry, the new bride is the sister of his college best friend and former fiancé of Nora’s. Nora is afraid her brother-in-law plans to murder again—not entirely sure why—and this imposes a looming deadline to solve the case. She has issues with her parents, issues with her Irish boyfriend, issues with the besotted detective—just a lot of issues for this girl. Actually, nearly every character in the book has family issues–a therapist’s dream cast.
Then another body is discovered by a Cambodian refugee who escapes from his own issues by fishing along the riverbank every morning. Lot of muck in this book. A catrillion coincidences start to occur and evidence begins to pop up all over the place. This isn’t wholly credible in a cold case—clues seldom just sit around waiting for people to re-examine what they have already combed exhaustively, but whatever. Seals and legends materialize, from Seattle to County Donegal. Mercifully there are no seals in the Mississippi.
I love selkie legends as much as anyone but a seal that somehow migrates within days from Puget Sound to the Atlantic off the Northwest Irish coast must have its own frequent flyer card. A lot in this book seems stuffed in to make it a page-turner. There are very flakey motives offered, when there are motives at all. Relationships seem oddly superficial. Not convincing. Just. Not.
The Irish and the folklore and the place names and the rugged coast could rope in a Celtic romantic like me. But the novel felt awkward and amateurish—not exactly terrible but definitely disappointing. In the end, the villains were cardboard cut-outs and I didn’t even care about the kid. Pity. I would have adored a good selkie murder mystery. Selkies are really cool.
False Mermaid Erin Hart | Scribner 2010