False Mermaid

False Mermaid

by Erin Hart


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False Mermaid by Erin Hart


American pathologist Nora Gavin fled to Ireland three years ago, hoping that distance from home would bring her peace. Though she threw herself into the study of bog bodies and the mysteries of their circumstances, she was ultimately led back to the one mystery she was unable to solve: the murder of her sister, Tríona. Nora can’t move forward until she goes back—back to her home, to the scene of the crime, to the source of her nightmares and her deepest regrets.

Determined to put her sister’s case to rest and anxious about her eleven-year-old niece, Elizabeth, Nora returns to Saint Paul, Minnesota, to find that her brother-in-law, Peter Hallett, is about to remarry and has plans to leave the country with his new bride. Nora has long suspected Hallett in Tríona’s murder, though there has never been any proof of his involvement, and now she believes that his new wife and Elizabeth may both be in danger. Time is short, and as Nora begins reinvestigating her sister’s death, missed clues and ever-more disturbing details come to light. What is the significance of the "false mermaid" seeds found on Tríona’s body? Why was her behavior so erratic in the days before her murder?

Is there a link between Tríona’s death and that of another young woman?

Nora’s search for answers takes her from the banks of the Mississippi to the cliffs of Ireland, where the eerie story of a fisherman’s wife who vanished more than a century ago offers up uncanny parallels. As painful secrets come to light, Nora is drawn deeper into a past that still threatens to engulf her and must determine how much she is prepared to sacrifice to put one tragedy to rest . . . and to make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416563778
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 03/01/2011
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Erin Hart is a theater critic and former administrator at the Minnesota State Arts Board. A lifelong interest in Irish traditional music led her to cofound Minnesota’s Irish Music and Dance Association. She and her husband, musician Paddy O’Brien, live in St. Paul, Minnesota, and frequently visit Ireland. Erin Hart was nominated for the Agatha and Anthony Awards for her debut novel, Haunted Ground, and won the Friends of American Writers Award in 2004. Visit her website at ErinHart.com.

Read an Excerpt


Death was close at hand, but the wounded creature leapt and twisted, desperate to escape. Seng Sotharith pulled his line taut and played the fish, sensing in the animal’s erratic movements its furious refusal to give in. He would do the same, he thought—had done the same, when he was caught.

Sotharith sat on the crooked trunk of an enormous cottonwood that leaned out over the water and watched the river flow by. Sometimes as he sat here, suspended above the water, he whispered the words over and over again, intrigued by their strangeness on his tongue. Minnesota. Mississippi. He had been in America a long time—five years in California, and now nearly eight years with his cousin’s family in Saint Paul, but still the music of the language eluded him.

High above on the bluffs, the noises of the city droned, but here he could shut them out. Sometimes on foggy mornings, he looked across the water and felt himself back in Cambodia. He saw houses on stilts, heard the shouts of his older brothers as they played and splashed in the river. The pictures never lasted long, dissipating quickly with the mist. Now the sun was rising behind him, gilding the leaves on the opposite bank. Soon he would have to scale the steep bluff and get to his job at the restaurant. All afternoon and evening, deaf to the shouts and noise of the kitchen, he would wash dishes, wrapped in his thoughts and in memories that billowed through his head like the clouds of steam that rose from the sinks.

He had once harbored a secret ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. Now, nearly forty years old, he knew it was far too late. But he was determined to learn English at least, to conquer its strange sounds and even stranger writing. It was the one way he could bring honor to his father’s memory.

Sotharith concentrated on his fish, letting the creature run one last time before reeling it in. Coming here helped clear away the images from his dreams, the tangled arms and legs he stepped through every night, the expanse of skulls covering the ground like cobblestones.

When he first arrived in Saint Paul, his cousin had brought him to a doctor, a gray-haired woman with kind eyes. She asked him to speak about the bones, but he could not. No words would come. They all looked at him—his cousin, the interpreter, the doctor. She tried to tell him that he had nothing to worry about, that he was safe here in America. He repeated the English word inside his head: safe. No matter how many times he said it, the sound meant nothing to him. Sotharith only knew that he had to climb down to this riverbank as often as he could, to walk the woods and sandbars below the green canopy and hear the birds at first light.

His catch was finally tiring. Sotharith stood and edged his way down the cottonwood’s broad trunk and landed the fish in the shallows beside its exposed and twisted roots. It was time to go. He gathered his sandals and the rest of his gear and headed to the place where he cleaned his fish, a pool in a marshy clearing just below the bluff.

When he reached the place, Sotharith took out his knife, giving the blade a few sharpening swipes against a small oval whetstone he kept in his pocket. The flash from the knife fell upon a bunch of red berries growing a few feet away. Sotharith set the knife aside and crawled toward the fruit that hung like tiny jewels, bright crimson against the dry leaves. He plucked one berry, biting into its sweet-and-bitter flesh, the taste of survival. Then he lifted the fish from the basket and cleaned it with a practiced hand, slitting open its pale belly and clearing the shiny, slippery viscera from between the ribs with one finger as he watched the light in its staring eyes go out.

The sun was barely up, but already the heat—and the smell—were almost overwhelming. They were being marched across a muddy field littered with bodies, and although he tried not to, he could not avoid stepping on them. The soldiers ahead stopped for some reason, and they heard voices raised in argument.Get down, his father whispered suddenly.Get down and be still. He’d felt a hand pressing on his shoulder, and had done as his father commanded, slipping down between the still-warm bodies, and trying not to look into their unseeing eyes. He felt a cold, lifeless hand laid across his face, then heard the orders barked at his father and the others, and felt icy terror as they moved on without him. He did not make a sound. A few moments later he heard the soldiers call a halt. No shots followed, no shouting, just the distant, dull sound of blows and bodies falling, and a single faint cry, abruptly cut short. It hadn’t taken long; by then the killing had become habit.

Everything was less clear when he tried to remember what came after, how long he had lain among the dead, waiting for a chance to escape, or all the days and weeks he’d spent hiding in the jungle, catching rainwater as it fell from palm fronds, eating the fruit he could gather, insects and grubs he dug out of the ground, whatever he could find. Time lost all measure; it seemed that he had lived with the birds and the monkeys for years before the soldiers caught him and sent him to the camps. It had taken another kind of will to survive there.

Here in America, he had always felt the mark of death upon him, a stain where that cold hand had touched his face.

He washed the fish blood from his hands in the pool of spring water that rose up from the forest floor. After cleaning fish, he always took care to bury the entrails. He’d chosen this spot not just for the spring, but because the earth around it was soft—easy to dig. With one hand, he cleared away dead leaves; with the other, he picked up a broken branch to use as a tool. At first, the ground yielded easily, coming up in irregular clods. Then his makeshift hoe snagged on something. Rocking forward on his knees, he pulled harder, tugging the branch to one side and then the other, and felt the earth erupt beneath him as the object suddenly came loose. He tumbled backward, tasting a shower of rotting leaves and feeling dry branches snap under his weight. Sotharith raised himself on his elbows and looked down to see what he had unearthed.

On the ground between his feet rested a human skull, its cheekbones cracked and splintered, empty eyeholes staring. Sotharith could only stare back, not daring to breathe. Inside his chest, he felt a slow resurrection of the knowledge that he had carried within him for so long. There was no safe place, not even here. The killing fields were everywhere.

© 2010 Erin Hart

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

False Mermaid by Erin Hart

1. False Mermaid opens with a newspaper article about the disappearance of a young Irish woman believed by some to have been a selkie (a seal temporarily transformed into a human). What ideas and images did this newspaper article bring to mind? How did the piece set up or color your impressions about how the novel would take shape?

2. What parallels do you see between the murder of Nora’s sister in Saint Paul, and the hundred-year-old disappearance of Mary Heaney, the young Donegal woman who was rumored to be a selkie? How relevant is the selkie story to the tale of Mary Heaney, or to Tríona Hallet’s death?

3. Nora believes that her brother-in-law Peter Hallet had some sort of power over her sister Tríona. Do you agree? Discuss Peter and his relations to the women in his life, including Tríona, Miranda, and Elizabeth.

4. Nora remembers what Tríona said, that Peter’s behavior seemed harmless at first, but that she ‘let things go too far.’ What do you think Tríona meant by this? Do you think it’s possible that she still loved her husband?

5. What sorts of experiences and connections do Elizabeth, Tríona, and Nora have with seals in the novel? If the one-eyed seal is a symbol, who or what do you think it represents? What does Cormac discover about his own previously unknown connections with seals and selkies?

6. Many characters in the novel are conflicted, torn between loyalties or emotions or places. How does internal conflict affect their external actions? Can you think of instances when it is a positive force or a negative one? Which characters are aware of their conflicts and for which are they subconscious?

7. Shape-shifting and transformation are among the major themes in False Mermaid. Several characters are shown changing shape, wearing disguises, or assuming a different identity. Can you think of several instances where this sort of change is depicted or suggested?

8. Ireland has long been a place where belief in the otherworld remains strong. Does the American portion of False Mermaid also contain other-worldly elements? Which characters, scenes, or images in the Saint Paul-based chapters help to underscore the novel’s other-worldly atmosphere?

9. Each section of False Mermaid begins with a quotation from a Victorian folklorist or naturalist. What did you learn about the prevailing Victorian attitudes toward the subjects these men were writing about—the relationships between humans and animals, between civilized societies and so-called ‘primitive cultures’ (which included most of Irish rural culture at the time), and unsettling, ancient notions of female emancipation represented by the selkie stories?

10. Both Nora and Tríona fear that they’ve lost the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Why? Think about the different meanings of the words ‘true’ and ‘false.’ How do these different meanings come into play in False Mermaid?

11. The title False Mermaid is an obvious reference to the botanical clue that eventually solves Tríona’s murder but it could also refer to other aspects of the novel. What are they? How is this sort of layering, of providing multiple meanings or ways of looking at something, central to the novel?

12. What recurring themes or symbols did you see in the novel? Consider, for example, the role of water in critical events, or the importance of music to the characters. What other elements stood out to you?

13. The novel ends with Elizabeth unable to believe her father culpable in her mother’s terrible murder—how did you react to this ending? Why do you think the author chose to leave Elizabeth Hallett’s feelings for her father unresolved?

14. Which were the most memorable scenes in False Mermaid? What ideas or images stayed in your mind after reading the book, and what were the most interesting bits of insight or information you gained?

15. How does Erin Hart’s work fit into the tradition of mystery/crime writing? Are there any authors—past or present—that you would consider similar in style or tone?

Many thanks to Wendy Webb, Marlyn Beebe, Marlys Johnson, and Linda White for their excellent ideas and suggestions. Go raibh mile maith agaibh!

Customer Reviews

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False Mermaid 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
dhaupt More than 1 year ago
Nora and Cormac drawn together by not only their passion for archeology and pathology but by their commonality of being led or misled by haunted pasts. Nora's of her sister's murder and subsequent fall out over her accusation against her brother-in-law for the crime and Cormac with his absent father's sudden appearance again in his life, and the role that absence played in who he became. These chain of events leave Cormac and Nora separated by The Atlantic Ocean while they try to solve their respective mysteries. But will they grow closer by being apart or will the breach continue to grow. Erin's 3rd installment of the life and times of Nora and Cormac are very different from her first two adventures, in those we just brush the surface of what makes these two incredible characters tick, while in False Mermaid we really get to know them and why they've made some of the choices that they have. If you're not familiar with Erin Hart, you are in for a treat when you experience her eloquent dialogue so full of Irish whit, charm and language while also in this novel giving us an accurate look at America as well. Nora leaves Cormac in Ireland while she travels back to the States to finally look further into the horrific crime that sent her across the Ocean in the first place. In this novel you will of course be re-introduced to Nora and Cormac, but you will be acquainted with the characters from the first two books that you only heard about. Erin's character development and production of these co-starring characters is amazing, and from them you will learn the history that Nora has been running from for so long and learn more about Cormac and his history as well. This is definitely not a romance, but there is a love story between Nora and Cormac and that continues to develop in this book. So there are love scenes and they are crucial to the plot because they give us a more in depth look at our hero and heroine. False Mermaid by Erin Hart is the 3rd in her Nora Gavin, Cormac Maguire series and she's made her readers wait for more than five years for this one. Now you may ask, was it worth the wait, and the answer would have to be a resounding Yes! This will definitely make it to the best seller list and soon. It gives mystery fans all they long for, a great who-done-it, great characters and the finality of solving the crime. But this will be attractive to more than just mystery fans, romance fans and Irish literature fans and literary fiction fans will also stand in line to get this book. It has the cross-genre pull that few authors can master. The only thing this true fan requests Ms. Hart, is please don't make us wait this long for our next journey with Nora and Cormac.
Angela MacDonald More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book. I love how Hart takes us back and forth beteen St. Paul and Ireland, past and present. It's not confusing but so enjoyable. I have read the previous books but this book can stand on its own, too. I can't wait for more!
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mishawaka-bookie More than 1 year ago
Erin Hart's third book "False Mermaid" continues to weave the past w/ the present that she started so brilliantly w/ the page-turning "Haunted Ground" . Insightful characters & forensic archaeology investigations, transport readers back & forth from Minnesota to Ireland w/ ease. The author effortlessly makes you care about her human characters, as well as the dead ones. the mysteries of Irish bogs & legends help to make her truly unique stories shine w/ reverence. You'll be at the end before you know it, wanting more, ,I promise
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I cannot put this book down so good!
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Tigerpaw70 More than 1 year ago
Book 3 in the Nora Gavin Mysteries The novel is a wonderful follow up to "Lake of Sorrow", where once more the author has skilfully combined Irish mythology into a murder mystery. The story opens where the prequel ended with Nora on her way back to the USA. She is determined once home to review the details and crack open the cold case of her sister's murder that has been haunting her for years. At the same time, when another body with similar trauma is discovered, Frank Cordova, the original police investigator, sees the similarities and decides to reopen the file to see if there is a link. The second murder has Nora and Frank joining forces, digging deeper and closer to the truth. Their intensive investigation unravels a mystery with many twists and turns..... I found the story captivating and very hard to put down. The race to get the missing pieces of the puzzle and necessary proof for a conviction is exciting and a real page turner. Nora's willingness to go to all means is stepped up a notch when she realizes her niece's life may also be in peril. The author has not forgotten Cormac Maguire (Nora's love) left behind in Ireland. A parallel story emerges with Cormac at the side of his ailing father in Donegal, a person he has been estranged from for many years and realizes he has a very short time to make amends with. While at his father bedside, with a close friend now a beloved caretaker, Cormac is told the story of the century old disappearance of a woman believed to be a selkie (a seal that evolves into a human). The element of the selkie makes for a fascinating and engaging tale of Irish folklore. A great addition giving a mysterious nature to the novel, one that leaves a haunting feeling..... The two stories weaved nicely throughout the novel and everything was neatly tied up in a conclusion that brought Nora back to Ireland. The novel is an expertly crafted mystery, one rich in atmosphere and legend. Very well done, I am looking forward to the next instalment.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just finished this book by Erin Hart; I could not put it down! I am looking forward to book #4!
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Cyndy3 More than 1 year ago
I have read the first two novels by Hart: Haunted Ground and Lake of Sorrows, both of which I enjoyed also. Interesting characters and beautifully written.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is mothing new or interesting in this book. The plot is contrived and the writing poor. I was bored fron the first page. Yuck.
A_FriendJG More than 1 year ago
I have been a fan of Erin Hart for sometime and have been anxiously awaiting her new book! She has met and exceeded my expectations with this book. I loved the storyline and how it is gently wrapped with Irish folklore and traditions. The characters are bold but flawed which makes them so much more enticing. I would highly recommend this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fellow Minnesotan, I've enjoyed all of Erin Hart's books. However, I must say I almost put this one down early because some of the characters were a bit noxious. However, I do like her protagonist. I did finish it and have to say I'm glad I did. I look forward to more books in the series. Lorna
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ashelly handed her a peael necklace that had razor sharp shells . She winked "pretty and protection"
harstan More than 1 year ago
Three years ago Triona Hallet was murdered in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The police never solved the homicide. Now Triona's sister, forensic archaeologist Dr. Nora Galvin comes home after spending two years in Ireland working cases (see Haunted Ground and Lake of Sorrows) and loving Cormac Maguire, who is in Donegal spending time with his father who deserted the family when he was a child. Nora is positive that her brother-in-law Peter killed his wife by smashing her face in before stuffing her in her car trunk. Neither her parents nor the local cops believe sly slick Peter would kill his wife as everyone insists he loved her. Nora's former lover and police detective is the only who believes her, but has no evidence linking Peter to Triona's murder. While Cormac investigates a reported half Selkie human, Nora finds the corpse of who appears to be a missing female member of the Twin Cities Rowing Club in a shallow grave. The case is eerily similar to that of Triona as both had the seeds of the false mermaid plant. Nora thinks if her former lover connects the second woman to Peter she has the chance to reopen the closed case; but she fears time is running out as Peter is remarrying. Although mostly in Minnesota, this terrific cross Atlantic investigative tale is a fast-paced must read for fans due to predominantly Nora, but also Cormac. Redemption and vengeance are the twin engines that propel the action in the States as Nora is on a vendetta that turns to desperation to protect a mother and daughter from the man she believes is a killer. Readers will enjoy False Mermaid as Erin Hart is at the top of her game with this homecoming. Harriet Klausner