Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told: A Novel

Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told: A Novel

by Tom Phelan


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Part human comedy and part mystery, Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told is an enthralling, masterful story about what holds a village together and what keeps people apart. When journalist Patrick Bracken returns to Gohen, the Irish village where he was born, he knows the eyes of the townspeople are on him. He has come home to investigate two deaths that happened decades earlier when he was a child, deaths that were ruled accidental. But Patrick knows—and believes the whole town knows—they were murders. He knows because he and his best friend, Mikey Lamb, were witnesses.

And so Patrick goes to see eighty-year-old Sam Howard, the lawyer who conducted the inquest into the death of missionary priest Jarlath Coughlin. As he questions Sam and Sam’s vibrant, loving, gossipy wife, Elsie, he seeks acknowledgment of a cover-up and an explanation of why the Protestant establishment would help conceal a crime among Catholics. During their give-and-take—about this and the nearly simultaneous shotgun death of Lawrence Gorman (aka Doul Yank)—what emerges from their collective memories are a pungent, wry portrait of village life in Ireland and a tangle of human relationships, some twisted and some that show our better side.

Skyhorse Publishing, as well as our Arcade, Yucca, and Good Books imprints, are proud to publish a broad range of books for readers interested in fiction—novels, novellas, political and medical thrillers, comedy, satire, historical fiction, romance, erotic and love stories, mystery, classic literature, folklore and mythology, literary classics including Shakespeare, Dumas, Wilde, Cather, and much more. While not every title we publish becomes a New York Times bestseller or a national bestseller, we are committed to books on subjects that are sometimes overlooked and to authors whose work might not otherwise find a home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628724288
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 831,509
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 4.00(d)

About the Author

Tom Phelan is the author of In the Season of the Daisies, Iscariot, Derrycloney, Nailer, and The Canal Bridge, also published by Arcade. Born and raised on a farm in Mountmellick, Country Laois, Ireland, Phelan now lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told

A Novel

By Tom Phelan

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2015 Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-470-7


Waiting to Be Let In

In which Patrick Bracken, a sixty-six-year-old retired newspaper reporter from Muker in Yorkshire, visits a lawyer in the Irish village of Gohen where he spent part of his childhood.

To everyone watching — and Patrick Bracken knew that many eyes were on him — the man standing at the edge of the broad footpath looking at the entrance to Mister Howard's house was spare and tall. All the curious watchers knew that Mister Howard was a solicitor, and they knew that the stranger was one, too, because he was dressed in a fawn camel hair overcoat, a brown trilby hat and gleaming brown shoes. He was wearing brown gloves. But Patrick Bracken was not a solicitor.

Black iron handrails set into four limestone steps led up to Mister Howard's house. Although Patrick Bracken had passed the doorway thousands of times in his younger life, he had never admired it before. The door was a showcase for the polished brass letterbox, knob, keyhole and lion's head knocker. As he stepped forward he saw the Masonic square and compasses carved into the keystone of the limestone arch framing the door.

While he waited for an answer to his clattering of the lion's nose ring, Bracken turned and surveyed the street. Many things had changed in fifty-five years: the drab, gray, cracked pavement where the farmers once rested the shafts of their piglet carts on fair days had been replaced with red bricks set in geometric designs; the house from whence the parish priest had reigned was now a hardware shop with green-headed rakes and red metal wheelbarrows displayed along its front wall; the once dignified Bank of Ireland building had been transmogrified into an electronics shop, its blaring advertisements flapping in the wind along its walls like loud, plastic shopping bags trapped in windy trees; Gormans' Pub — renamed "1014" and with a fake thatched roof, plastic battle-axes and horned Norse war helmets — might have been purposefully aged to replicate a shebeen. The Irish flag displayed high on the wall of John Conroy's drapery shop seemed to have faded, but then Patrick saw the new signage over the door: ENZO'S PIZZERIA; and where Tom Bennet's sweet shop used to be, a large golden dragon hung out over the footpath.

"Jesus! How did the Chinese find Gohen?"

Up and down the street, cars were parked willy-nilly, half up on the footpaths' red bricks. Near the cinema two tyrannous lorries, one loaded with new cars, the other piled high with bales of straw, were squeezing past each other. A short, black-haired man came out of Enzo's and, gesticulating wildly, assumed the role of traffic director.

The sixteenth-century town had been overrun in this early year of the twenty-first, its narrow streets defeating the traffic. But with more Continental money, the town would soon have its own personal bypass, an amulet of cement magically returning Gohen to the natives.

Without Patrick hearing it, the black door behind him swung open on its silent hinges. "Mister Bracken, I presume," a self-possessed voice asked, and as Patrick turned he removed his hat at the same time. His thick gray hair, parted on the left side, touched the tips of his ears.

"Yes, Patrick Bracken."

She had shrunk with age, but even a half century later, Bracken could have picked out her face on a crowded London sidewalk.

"Missus Howard," he said. "I hope you are keeping well."

The years had transformed her, but the underlying foundation that had once made her the rival of a certain Protestant minister's wife was still there. She could have been a young woman disguised as an older one. Patrick saw she was still wearing the ivory cameo at her throat, a girl-child with ringlets in profile.

"Even after fifty-five years," Patrick thought.

"The mind is quick but the body is slow," Missus Howard said. "Better that than the other way around. You are very welcome, Mister Bracken. Step inside so I can shake your hand. It's unfriendly to shake hands over a doorstep."

Her fingers felt like bits of sticks in a glove, but her grasp was strong. "I didn't know your family, but Sam says your father did some work for him — puttied and painted windows."

"Yes, indeed. My father turned his hand to anything that would earn him a few pounds."

"Shillings, more likely. Those were bad times, the forties: war just over, the Depression still here and the country trying to struggle to its feet after the English left. ... Give me your coat and hat, Mister Bracken." As he slipped off his coat, Missus Howard stepped behind him, took it and draped it across a hallway chair.

"Please call me Patrick. How is Mister Howard?"

"You can call me Else, for Elsie. ... Sam is an old blackthorn on a hill — he can still stand up to gale-force winds. He'll last forever, become petrified like one of those old trees in America. He's out in the back in the sunroom. At our age we're like reptiles — need a bit of sun to get the body moving."

She turned and Bracken followed her. As he walked through the old house, Patrick realized that the shellacked front door with its brilliant brass was an extension of a fastidiously maintained interior. The walls were hung with engravings of classical Roman scenes, and as he passed an open door he saw polished black furniture, a black, iron fireplace with a clock and vases on its mantel, ancient family portraits and an embroidered fire screen within a brass-railed fender.

The kitchen was a surprise with its brightness, Formica counters, hanging cabinets and modern appliances. Bracken felt he had stepped through half a century in the blink of an eye. "Gosh," he said.

"What's that, Patrick?" Missus Howard asked.

"Your kitchen ... it's so bright and airy."

"Yes, it is nice, isn't it? It's a strong contrast to the rest of the house. I wish my mother had had the same one — the labor it would have saved her. Sam made me have it installed." She depressed the button on the electric kettle as she walked by.

Bracken followed Else into the sunroom where several pots of soft-fronded ferns hung from the ceiling. Mister Howard was levering himself out of a cushioned wicker chair. He had shrunk too, his head as bald and freckled as a turkey's egg. He wore an open-necked, dark green shirt and an Aran cardigan with imitation chestnut buttons. Holding out his hand, Mister Howard said, "Don't believe her, Mister Bracken. I never made that woman do anything in my life, even though she promised to obey me when we got married."

"Hah," Else said, dismissively. "And you can call him Patrick, and he can call you Sam."

"You are very welcome, Patrick," the old man said.

"I remember your father well. ... Ned, wasn't it?"

"Yes indeed, it was Ned. My mother called him Edward when she was being tender toward him."

"Here it's usually the other way around. Else calls me David Samuel when she's impatient with me. The rest of the time it's plain Sam. If she's trying to get on my good side, she calls me Sammy. When she calls me that, I know there's something coming, like planting bulbs or zapping a spraying cat in the garden with the pellet gun."

"Sam rattles like a pebble in a bucket sometimes," Else said. "There's the kettle singing. You're not to begin talking about anything important till I get back. I want to hear everything." She went back to the kitchen.

Mister Howard indicated a chair with its back to the window wall. "Sit, Patrick," he said, and he lowered himself to a soft landing onto the roses embroidered in high relief on the cushion in his own chair. Patrick now saw several plants on the floor in Roman urns cast in bronze-tinted plastic. In the six paintings on the walls, birds in bare-leafed, berried bushes displayed the art of the painter. On the wicker table next to Mister Howard lay a thick book, The Raj by Lawrence James, with the tip of a pewter bookmark showing it was about three-quarters read. On the other side of the table, beside Missus Howard's chair, sat a battered dictionary and a newspaper page folded open at a crossword puzzle, a biro clipped onto its crease. Beside the dictionary lay a red-covered book, but Patrick could not see its title. A lamp, its china base strewn with ceramic roses, sat in the table's center.

"Did your wife come over with you, Patrick?" Sam Howard asked.

"She did. We're visiting her brother's family, the Lambs, in Clunnyboe. We try to come every year, but sometimes life interferes with the plans."

"The best-laid plans ..." Sam said. "How is Fintan Lamb? Still as busy as ever?"

"Fintan will die with his boots on. He's as fit as a snipe."

"Lamb!" Mister Howard said with a smile. "It's an amusing name for a vet."

"We call him the Lamb of God. His wife's name is Mary, and of course Mary has had a little Lamb many times. They can joke about it: they named their house Lamb's Quarters."

"After the weed," the older man said, smiling.

"Names can be touchy things. It helps if you have a sense of humor if you're saddled with something awful. Have you heard about the man named Jack Shite who got tired of people laughing at him and changed his name by deed to Jim Shite?"

Bracken laughed not so much at the joke as at the incongruity of the vulgarity and his memory of David Samuel Howard as the proper and remote Protestant esquire of his childhood.

Missus Howard came into the room with a tray. "Tell the truth, Patrick. Had you heard that joke before?" Her husband moved the red book to make room on the table.

"I had," Bracken admitted.

"If I had a penny for every —"

"Oh, Else, a good joke can be enjoyed many times," Sam said.

Bracken could now see the spine of Missus Howard's book — A Social History of Ancient Ireland, Vol. 2 by P. W. Joyce — and he knew that even if their bodies were old, he was talking with two cerebral gymnasts.

As the tea and biscuits were dispensed, more small talk revealed that Patrick Bracken was presently living in Muker in the Yorkshire Dales.

"Famous for the Farmers Arms and the Literary Institute," he said, with a facetious smile.

"Surely the Yorkshire Dales are far off the beaten path for a reporter?" Missus Howard asked.

"Old reporters become special correspondents, and that's what I am now, Missus Howard ... Elsie. I'm sixty-six, and reporting is for young lads who can run. Computers and the Internet allow me to do most of my work from home."

"We see your pieces in the Irish Times every so often," Elsie said. "We always keep an eye out for them."

As everyone sipped their tea, silence momentarily descended, and Patrick decided now was the time to get down to business.

"I want to thank you for agreeing to talk to me about —"

"Listen is the word, Patrick," Mister Howard said. "First I will listen, and then I will decide if I will talk." Bracken noticed a slight shake in Sam's hands.

"Oh, for God's sake, Sam, stop your word splitting," Else said. "You're worse than a Jesuit." She turned to Patrick. "Sam takes the seal of confession more seriously than the pope. I've heard stuff at funerals and weddings and in shops years ago that Sam still won't talk about because he heard it as privileged information."

"I understand about privileged information, Mister ... Sam," Patrick said, "but all I may need is your recollection of what was said at the inquest. I tried to get a copy of the inquest in Portlaoise but —"

"You spoke to Harrigan — Alphonsus A., Esquire?" Elsie interrupted, and Patrick nodded. "And he told you it wouldn't be fair to the Coughlin family even though inquests are public affairs. He's worse than Saint Peter stopping people at the Pearly Gates for gossiping. All the Coughlins are dead. Alphonsus A. Harrigan, Esquire, is as tight as a crab's backside. ... He's as bad as Sam."

"Clam," Sam said, completely unruffled.

"What?" she asked.

"It's a clam," he said, and impatiently waved his own words into significance.

"What's a clam?" she persisted.

"The saying is, as tight as a clam's arse, not a crab's. And please let me get a word in edgeways, Else." Sam looked at Patrick. "You said in your letter that this enquiry of yours is a personal thing, that you've no intention of writing about it. Even so, I am wary of you as a reporter. I'm eighty-nine, and you're what? Mid-sixties? You'll outlive —"

"Sam," Bracken interrupted, "I take the seal of confession as seriously as you. I've made many promises about secrecy, and I've never broken one. Many of my sources have died, and I have never betrayed them. I will not betray you. As you said, this is purely personal."

"It's no secret that you've been digging into this thing in Gohen and Clunnyboe and Drumsally for several years. I suspected you would eventually come here to our house. But why is it so important to you? We're talking about something that happened, what? Fifty-five years ago, for Christ's sake."

"As a child I did not realize there were contradictions in what I saw and heard about the deaths of Father Coughlin and Lawrence Gorman, things that were never spoken about by the adults. For my own satisfaction I want to know what really happened. And yes, over the years I have been collecting bits and pieces of the story. The people who were involved or who know the details are dying off and —"

"And that's why you're here now, Patrick," Else said. "You're afraid Sam and I will fall off the perch soon." She was smiling.

"Sam is the only one left who —"

"I had my own part to play in the drama," Elsie said, determined not to be sidelined.

"Else, for God's sake! You had nothing to do with anything," her husband growled.

"I did, too, Sam. For one thing, I spilled tea on Deirdre Hyland's skirt."

"Be serious, Else. The man doesn't want to hear your asides."

Elsie was not intimidated. "Patrick, I know as much as Sam, probably more."

Patrick tried to break up this back-and-forth. "When I spoke to the others, I promised I would not write about what I discovered. I told them that I simply wanted to find out what happened for my own satisfaction. I quickly realized that what I knew was only the glimpse of an outsider — and an outsider child at that. Of them all, Peggy Mulhall was the most suspicious. Before she told me anything, she accused me of trying to disassociate myself from my poor beginnings because I now call myself Patrick instead of Barlow."

"I didn't know you were called Barlow," Missus Howard said. "Why did you change your name?"

"My first editor thought Patrick was more dignified, that Bartholomew was archaic and Barlow undignified."

"He must have been an —"

"Else, can you hang on for one minute?" Mister Howard said. He turned to Patrick. "You must have some reason besides curiosity for dragging up the past about Coughlin and Gorman."

"I'm curious about how and why an entire village covered up the murder of two men."

Missus Howard clapped her hands and sat up straight. She was beaming. "Sam! Sam! I always told you." She looked at Bracken. "I always told him, Patrick. I always said it — the two of them were murdered. But Sam will only admit to the official finding that both deaths were accidental."

"You will stop this, Else. You are in the realm of gossip and calumny." Sam's voice was stern. "This is a very serious matter. The Coughlin inquest determined the priest's death was accidental, and Inspector Larkin from Dublin concluded that Doul Yank Gorman unintentionally killed himself."

"Sam. Sam," Patrick said, his hands out as if trying to calm the impatience that had crept into Sam's tone. "What about this approach: if I tell you everything I know, will you tell me everything you know?"

"No, I can't make a sweeping promise. But I will consider individual questions you may have."

"Oh, for God's sake, Sam," Else said, and she shifted in her chair like a fussy hatching hen. She addressed Patrick. "I know as much as he does about the two deaths. I'll fill in the gaps for you."

"But only if it is not privileged information," her husband reminded her.

"David Samuel Howard! You have never shared privileged information with me. My information comes from the grapevine."

"Gossip, Else."

"You call it gossip when I hear something on the grapevine." She turned to Patrick again. "What Sam hears on the grapevine he calls community news."

"It's a matter of discernment."

"You're saying again that I'm gullible."

"No, Else. I simply believe that I have had more training and experience at weeding the fiction out of what is presented as fact."

"God! The delusions of the man!"

"But she loves me, Patrick, and I love her," Mister Howard said. "We've had a good life together. We were lucky."

"People make their own luck," Patrick said by way of compliment.

The three of them sat in silence for a few moments to absorb the little pleasantnesses. Then Patrick said, "All right! Should I start?"

"Go ahead," Sam said. "And Else ..."

"I know, Sam. I know. You don't have to say it."

Patrick began. "Mikey Lamb —"

Elsie immediately interrupted. "That young man who died in Amsterdam? How many years ago was it?"

"Yes, that was Mikey. Thirty-two years ago, and he was thirty-four when he died."

"He was murdered, wasn't he? Was anyone ever caught for that?"

"Mikey Lamb?" Mister Howard asked. "Oh, of course. He was your wife's brother."

"The family believes Mikey worked for the C.I.A.


Excerpted from Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told by Tom Phelan. Copyright © 2015 Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Author's Note,
Cast of Characters,
1 Waiting to Be Let In,
2 The Birthday Present,
3 The Gift from Leeds,
4 The Peeper,
5 In the Sunroom,
6 On the Kitchen Floor,
7 Wrestling on the Edge of a Cliff,
8 In the Sunroom,
9 The Sister,
10 In the Sunroom,
11 The Civil Servant,
12 The Bike,
13 The Trap,
14 In the Sunroom,
15 Emigration,
16 In the Sunroom,
17 The 3,367th Journey Home,
18 The Terrible Thought,
19 In the Sunroom,
20 In the Burnished Pewter Bowl,
21 The July Fair Day in Gohen,
22 Visiting the Sick,
23 In the Sunroom,
24 First Witness: Mister Kevin Lalor,
25 In the Sunroom,
26 Witness: Sergeant Morrissey,
27 In the Sunroom,
28 Witness: Doctor Roberts,
29 In the Sunroom,
30 Witness: Mister Coughlin,
31 In the Sunroom,
32 Witness: Missus Madden,
33 In the Sunroom,
34 Witness: Mister Murphy,
35 In the Sunroom,
36 Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told,
37 In the Sunroom,
38 The Reluctant Good Neighbor,
39 In the Sunroom,
40 What Peggy Mulhall Said She Did,
41 In the Sunroom,
42 The Day Before the Inquest,
43 In the Sunroom,

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Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told: A Novel 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
YvetteH More than 1 year ago
This book takes the reader on quite the adventure. Wonderfully witty yet somber and suspenseful. I found myself both laughing out loud and wiping tears. Under the masterful pen of Mr. Phelan rural Ireland of the 1950s comes to life with a cast of characters you just don't want to say goodbye to.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had family living in Ireland during the years covered in this story. Everything described is so accurate it brought back a lot of good memories. I could almost feel the damp air and smell the peat fires.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this truly Irish novel, filled with interesting characters and humour. The mystery is not the most important element of the book. It is all about the interaction of characters, their rural way of life, their dialect, and their setting. Highly recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The title of this book got me. The wonderful writing and captivating story kept me glued to the finish. I laughed and cried with this wonderful cast of characters. The glossary in the back was very helpful for this Doul Yank!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Auther drifts off discribing discriptions but this is a good loving story in a place and time worth experiancing