A Sense of Place

Our guest bloggers are Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden, authors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries. The fourth book in the series, The Dead of Achill Island, was published this week.

Plains of Achill Island and Mountain

Photo by Betsy Draine

In planning a mystery, we begin by asking: where? Our first novel, Murder in Lascaux, was set in southwestern France. The setting generated the plot, which focused on prehistoric cave art. A sense of place has been important in each installment in the series: northern California in The Body in Bodega Bay, the French Riviera in Death on a Starry Night, and the West of Ireland in The Dead of Achill Island.

We first visited Achill on the advice of Betsy’s cousin, an Irish nun. The West of Ireland, she told us, is where the old ways are best preserved. The largest of Ireland’s islands, Achill (rhymes with “cackle”) lies offshore above Galway on the Atlantic coast, as far west as an Irishman can go. Today the island is linked to the mainland by a causeway and a bridge. Even so, Achill feels remote. Denuded of trees, the landscape presents flat vistas of bogs and grasslands, steep mountains, and treacherous cliffs. Its megalithic tombs attest that the island has been inhabited for millennia, while church graveyards with broken headstones recall the dead of recent centuries. A soft rain falls more often than not. What better setting for a mystery?

Cottage rubble with mountain backdrop

Photo by Betsy Draine

At the base of Slievemore Mountain lies a string of ruined cottages known as the Deserted Village. These homes were abandoned in the 1840s at the time of the Great Famine. Inhabitants fled to the island’s shore, where they survived by fishing. They left behind an Irish ghost town. As we wandered through the lonely village, we imagined discovering a body in one of the ruined cottages, and that became the opening scene of this novel.

The title refers not only to a fictional murder but also to the victims of two historical tragedies on Achill that gave rise to legend. It is said that In the 17th century a prophet named Brian Rua O’Cearbhain foretold that carriages on iron wheels would come to the island, belching smoke and fire—and on their first and last journeys, the carriages would carry the dead. The prophecy was fulfilled when the first steam train came in 1894, returning the bodies of thirty islanders who had drowned en route to seasonal jobs in Scotland. The last run of the train before the line shut down in 1937 carried the bodies of twenty-three local boys who had died in a fire while working away from home. The haunting legend attached to these tragedies colors the atmosphere of the novel.

A well-rendered sense of place can immerse a reader in another world. In The Dead of Achill Island, we hope the reader is transported to the West of Ireland alongside Nora and Toby.

Draine and Hinden author photoBetsy Draine and Michael Hinden are are coauthors of the Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries. They also coauthored the memoir A Castle in the Backyard: The Dream of a House in France and translated The Walnut Cookbook by Jean-Luc Toussaint. They are professors emeriti of English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

2 comments

  1. I’m fan of Nora Barnes and Toby Sandler Mysteries.

    They are an interesting couple who go places to unravel mysteries.

    Glad there’s a new book to transport us to Ireland this time around.

  2. I love reading books that are based on real life stories that’s why I love Nora and Toby’s books. It’s like I’m traveling with them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *