A historical novel dramatizes the murder of a prominent Irish politician in late 19th-century Canada.
Clara Swift is born in Ireland, but in the late 1860s, she moves to Montreal to work as a servant for fellow Irish native Thomas D’Arcy McGee. McGee is a political agitator of sorts, and proposes the consolidation of Canadian settlements into a unified country, a nation that could simultaneously house disenfranchised Irish and serve as an example to the British Crown of the Irish capacity for self-governance. But some Irish radicals—Fenian rebels—are so committed to revolution on their country’s soil that they invade Canada to draw more British troops there, strategically diminishing their number in Ireland. When McGee is murdered, any Irishman in Canada with the most gossamer connections to the Fenians is rounded up as a suspect. On the strength of Clara’s identification, this group includes Jimmy Whelan, who quickly becomes the prime suspect. But for a variety of reasons, Clara remains unconvinced of his involvement—he actually warned the family three months ago of an assassination attempt. Shortell (Money Has No Country, 1991, etc.) conjures a memorable heroine in Clara: Only 15 years old, she’s uncannily sharp and literarily astute, but endearingly guileless. She becomes increasingly concerned that McGee’s murder had something to do with a manuscript he was preparing for publication, a politically provocative critique of Americans. Maj. Pierce Doyle, the lead investigator on the case, recruits Clara to pump Whelan’s wife, Bridie, for incriminating information, and to help decode McGee’s private diaries. The author skillfully builds a suspenseful mystery, cautiously meting out just enough information to keep readers gripped by the plot, but not so much that the conclusion becomes transparently obvious. In addition, her prose can be elegant: “In some way, this sealed display made it seem that Mr. McGee’s death was all for show. Even Christ’s body hadn’t been left hanging so long as a lesson to his people before he’d been decently interred.” But the novel’s strongest selling point is its artful amalgam of historical scholarship and fictional drama—Shortell brings her meticulous research to vivid life.
A thrilling and historically edifying period tale.