Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"In the beginning was the Word..."

I confess to being a bit tongue-tied whenever trying to explain what my books are ABOUT. Yes, they're archaeological/forensic mysteries set in the bogs of Ireland, but I sincerely hope that each one is ABOUT much more than just whodunit. Any good novel is full of mysteries, and in some ways, I prefer to let readers find the connections and the meaning behind the stories. 

But there is always an underlying theme: in HAUNTED GROUND it was how the past intrudes into and connects with the present; in LAKE OF SORROWS it was how the notion of sacrifice has stayed with us down through the ages; in FALSE MERMAID I got to play with all sorts of fairy-tale ideas about identity and shape-shifting.

THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN was inspired by the discovery of  The Faddan More Psalter, a 9th-century book of psalms, in a Tipperary bog in 2006. I was fascinated by the thought of someone losing a book in a bog... Not to mention the fact that a leather satchel had been found not far away... seven years previously. Anyone who knows anything about medieval scribes knows that they stored and carried their manuscripts around in leather book satchels, known in Irish as tiag libuir

For those of you who know Cormac Maguire and Nora Gavin, THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN has them back in the bogs of Ireland, recovering the remains of a  man from the ninth century who has turned up for some reason in the trunk of a car buried in the bog.

(When I told people how the story began, they would always ask how a ninth-century guy ended up in the trunk of a car, and I'd say, "I don't know—I have to write the book to find out.")

While Cormac and Nora are out on the excavation, another body turns up, and this time it's a modern murder victim, Benedict Kavanagh, the host of a television program. Cormac and Nora are staying at Killowen, a local organic farm/artists' retreat, and the people living or working there (including Kavanagh's wife and her lover) all become suspects in his murder.

My fictional story centers on the search for an ancient manuscript. I'm fascinated by the ways in which Irish culture throughout the ages was perpetuated without written language (and is still being perpetuated, in some situations), and how the Irish monks who copied out all those thousands of manuscripts in the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries kept ideas and learning alive. 

I've always had more than a passing interest in handwriting and calligraphy, but when the Faddan More Psalter turned up, I got very interested in the whole fascinating history of books and book-making. Imagine living in a time when every book in the world had been written out by hand...

To me, the theme of THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN centers on language and words, the ways and habits we have of encoding language, the ways in which words and stories and beliefs are handed down. 

Various people in the novel  have trouble communicating: some speak in fits and starts because of brain conditions like aphasia and Tourette's, some can't read or write, some speak languages other than English. To these people, and those trying to understand them, the link between words and their meaning cannot be taken for granted.

We're going through a revolution at the moment, not unlike the revolution that occurred in Ireland in the early days of Christianity, when the written word began to supersede the spoken word at the center of the culture. THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN touches upon all those ideas, the mysterious ways that words and knowledge are passed down through the centuries. 

The transmission of knowledge in traditional culture—music, song, storytelling, and history—is something that fascinates me, and it's something my characters often think about. At one point in HAUNTED GROUND, Cormac says to Nora: 
Things do remain. People carry on, without even knowing. You can’t kill that, as hard as you might try. It’s almost like something embedded in our subconscious, like a virus, that only shows itself in certain conditions. Sounds daft, I know, but doesn’t it make sense, when you think of all that’s managed to survive?

In THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN, the young scribe in the prologue, EĆ³ghan, is obsessed with words and writing, and keeps returning to a passage from the Gospel of John, something he probably would have copied out by hand many times over: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word."  

Although I'm thoroughly agnostic, I am fascinated by this connection in the human mind between the idea of god and the idea of language. Every belief system in the world has its holy books, collections of words that distill and magnify religious and spiritual ideas. 

Those books are our still-vital connection to the thoughts that traveled through the minds of ancient philosophers and scholars. There must have been many written works that did not survive. But a few managed to travel through millennia unscathed, and that we still have any of those ancient works at all is probably down to the Irish monks who patiently copied out every book they could get their hands on, spreading curiosity and the love of knowledge at a time when approved and accepted ways of thinking were growing narrower and narrower.

I'm also playing around with ideas about how we define the word 'book.' The characters in THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN debate this subject over the dinner table Is a book an artifact, a physical object, something we can hold in our hands and touch? People who love books love that aspect of them, right down to the smell of ink and glue. Or can a book be a collection of words and ideas, in whatever format used to transmit them? I hear from more and more people all the time who are completely devoted to audiobooks, who revel in the words of a story brought to life by reading aloud. 

That's the way I learned to love books, living along with the characters as my mother read to us from LITTLE WOMEN, ROBINSON CRUSOE, TREASURE ISLAND, MISTRESS MASHAM'S REPOSE...

I would love to hear YOUR thoughts about all this, dear readers. 


  1. I love the books and am finishing The Book of Killowen as I write this. I only wish I knew how to pronouce the Gaelic names and words. For years I thought that Eoghan was pronounced the same way as my son-in-law's surname Egan. I had no idea it was pronounced as Owen

  2. Thanks for your message, C! Hope you found the glossary and pronunciation guide on the website ( I still need to update it with new names and terms from THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN. Adding it to my TO-DO list right now!