The Burning of Bridget Cleary
It's a bad sign that Angela Bourke opens her nonfiction murder mystery, tantalizingly titled The Burning of Bridget Cleary, with a weather report taken from a bureaucrat's log. Perhaps Bourke set out to show that she'd done her homework on this 100-year-old story. But such an opening lets readers know right away that the story of poor Bridget Cleary--an Irish woman who was burned to death in 1895 by her husband--will be rendered as a dry-as-ashes, scholarly history rather than as the incendiary tale the title suggests.
After catching a cold during a walk to a neighbor's house, Bridget is laid up in bed for more than a week. Her husband and family, believers of Irish lore, think that malevolent fairies have abducted Bridget and replaced her with a sickly doppelgänger. After a week of enduring last rites, herbal remedies, threats with fire and hot pokers (which, according to legend, frighten fairies), and, finally, an argument with her husband, Bridget disappears; police find her charred body in a bog two weeks later.
But, as with any popular mystery, there's more to the story. As Bourke relates how the case was investigated and tried, she infuses the murder tale with discussions of class and gender issues, nationalism, and the role of folklore in Ireland. She shows that the Clearys' marriage might have been strained, that Bridget might have had an affair, and that her high economic status as an egg dealer might have brought the jealousy of family and neighbors upon her. According to Bourke, Bridget was proud and didn't accept her "place" in society, and she was possibly tortured and killed for it. Bourke also takes a panoramic view, considering the case's effects on those who advocated Irish independence from England. The unionist newspapers used the gruesome murder to argue that the Irish were a bunch of backward barbarians, unfit to govern themselves.
All of which could have made a fascinating and fast-paced micro-history, were it not for Bourke's tendency to the drop the detritus of her research into the main flow of the story. Details, when well-ordered, are the essential elements of a murder mystery, but Bourke's account gives us too much data and, at times, frustratingly little context. In the opening weather account, for example, Bourke recounts the day-to-day routine of the meteorologist's duties. Such passages--which don't have anything to do with the murder or the case--appear throughout the book and jar readers like speed bumps on a straightaway. Meanwhile, story threads start and end abruptly, and this reader frequently found himself paging back to recall the significance of a character or a plot twist. Although Bourke has unraveled new parts of an old case--which are often compelling--she added some confounding knots of her own.