Young Irish immigrant housemaid and amanuensis Clara Swift opens the boarding house door at 2:30 am on April 7th, 1868 to find her mentor, Irish-Canadian politician D’Arcy McGee, shot in the back of the head.
Irish Fenian rebels are blamed for the assassination, but from that moment on Clara’s fate is interwoven with the question of who killed McGee. She unwittingly leads the investigator to an Irish lad named Jimmy Whelan, and within a day that lad is charged with the murder. Clara never believes he did the deed, even after he’s convicted in a show trial—and publicly hanged.
She decodes McGee’s private diaries, spies on a woman she comes to think of as a friend, and pursues McGee's missing political manuscript. Her trial testimony is ignored, her private papers are stolen and published for their sensation value, and her boss is attacked and their house burned down after Clara visits the prison. When a journalist tries to unearth government secrets, Clara witnesses his fatal fall from a second-storey window.
Clara even dares to question Canada’s Prime Minister in her search for the truth. Finally, she confronts the killer--and learns that political pressures can mold the truth to fit the times.
During this fateful year, Clara loses three jobs, two homes, and all of her possessions, before she truly understands the cost of crossing the threshold to a new country—and untangles the Celtic Knot.
Plot: Shortell's storyline is as intricate as the assassination plot it follows. While there are a few lulls in the action, the story moves along well to a surprising conclusion.
Prose: Shortell's prose is well-crafted and, at times, lyrical. However, some of her descriptions can be a little overdone.
Originality: Deftly balancing historical fact and fiction, Shortell's retelling of the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee makes for a wonderful read.
Character Development: The characters here are well-developed. The real-life characters are true to their histories, and readers will become enamored of Clara Swift.
Date Submitted: August 27, 2018
A CLARA SWIFT TALE
FriesenPress (Mar 22, 2018)
Softcover $24.99 (336pp)
Clarion Rating: 5 out of 5
Celtic Knot is unusual and engrossing historical fiction that winds plausible mystery elements into an ode to a treasured national hero.
Ann Shortell’s Celtic Knot examines history through a young Irish teen as she grapples with a mystery, assassination, and political intrigue.
In the early morning hours of April 7, 1868, an Irish rebel assassinated prolific author and politician D’Arcy McGee, a father of the Canadian Confederation. His staff heard the shot and rushed out to discover his body, with one housemaid witnessing a departing buggy.
In this novelization, McGee’s trusted housemaid and scribe, Clara Swift, who thinks the world of her slain employer, sets down a path to discover an explanation for his murder. As Clara becomes swept up in the investigation, the trial, and the eventual hanging of an Irish immigrant, she records it all in her diary.
Though the book’s major plot points are based in fact, its lead, Clara, is imagined. Her actions offer a unique view of the somewhat debated conspiracy behind McGee’s murder. The decision to frame the story through a fifteen-year-old housemaid adds a dramatic touch while retaining the unusual nature of the crime and its aftermath.
Clara is a fascinating character. The entire story comes through her personal writings. While she is intelligent and determined, she’s still young and inexperienced. She idolizes McGee and frequently recalls his words and her experiences with him. She leads his story through all its highs and lows with her own flair and determination.
McGee’s death doesn’t stop him from being a major character throughout the book. As Clara remembers him, his actions and thoughts resonate and drive her forward. Even readers unfamiliar with the historical events will connect with McGee’s gifts and understand why he was able to unite Canada.
Polished prose captures the tones and styles of the late 1800s perfectly. Characters speak with appropriate accents and vocabulary. Often speeches in foreign languages go untranslated, with either paraphrased sections following or contextual clues to offer clarity. Since the narrative is entirely Clara’s, the ambiguity creates compelling interest even in less dramatic moments.
While the assassination remains firmly in the spotlight, a secondary mystery simmers beneath the surface. McGee’s latest manuscript is missing and all signs point to theft. A connection between the theft and the assassination remains murky throughout. Clara’s loyalty to McGee drives her to discover the fate of the manuscript, one with important political ramifications.
Celtic Knot is unusual and engrossing historical fiction that winds plausible mystery elements into an ode to a treasured national hero.
Reviewed by John M. Murray
May 3, 2018
Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The author of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the author will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.
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.
Celtic Knot by Ann Shortell
May 4, 2018
Reviewed by Jim Napier
Toronto author Ann Shortell offers an eerie yet uplifting account of how she came to write a novel based on the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee in the earliest days of Canadian confederation. Awakened from a bad dream, she scribbled down a note beginning with the compelling words “I was on the other side of the door when Mr. D’Arcy was shot.” Convinced that her story had merit, she enrolled in an online fiction-writing course offered by Stanford University. Her judgment was validated when she became a finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada “Unhanged Arthur” Award for Best Unpublished Novel of 2017.
On April 7, 1869, fifteen-year-old housemaid Clara Swift recalls the murder of her former master, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, exactly one year earlier. It is a difficult task for her to relive these events, but she has been asked to do so by none other than Sir John A. Macdonald, the Prime Minister of Canada, who is anxious that a true account of McGee’s life, and of his death, be preserved for history.
She begins by recounting McGee’s emigration from Ireland in 1848, hounded for being a rebel. After settling in America he came to realize that their system of government was also flawed, and did not offer the justice and peace of mind that he sought. But ironically, after moving to Canada in 1857, McGee had found a British Colony in which Catholics enjoyed equal rights. Tempering his enthusiasm he soon encountered the Fenian rebels; Irish nationalists, they had invaded Canada from the United States, hoping to bring British troops into the conflict. But although Irish himself, McGee came to regard the Fenians as dangerous, and put his faith instead in the democratic system that the fledgling Canada was striving to establish. His Irish roots, combined with his opposition to the Fenians, caused them to condemn him as a traitor.
Following his election as a Member of Parliament, McGee and housemaid Clara Swift moved to Ottawa. They settled in a boarding house at 71 Sparks Street, presided over by Mrs. Nancy Trotter and her son, Willy, who was a Parliamentary pageboy and an aspiring journalist.
Shortly after half-past two in the morning, on April 7th, 1868, the silence in Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house was abruptly shattered by the sound of a single gunshot. Clara opened the front door to find D’Arcy McGee lying on the doorstep. She summoned help from inside, but it was too late. The only sign of his assailant was her fleeting glimpse of a carriage disappearing around a distant street corner.
Immediately following the attack there had been an inquest and an autopsy. The word went out to watch the railway lines and canal lock stations for signs of McGee’s assailants, and the net began to tighten. But just as a fishing net gathers all manner of creatures as it is hauled in, so the investigation into D’Arcy McGee’s murder extended its reach to include the famous and the infamous, victims and villains, the powerful and the powerless, and the Canadian political landscape became forever altered. Before it ended, political beliefs became fused with religious convictions, and all Irish people became the targets of public hatred. And although one man was sent to the gallows for the assassination of D’Arcy McGee, three other deaths reckoned in the final accounting.
Those who think Canadian history lacks drama will find, in Celtic Knot, a suspense-filled fictional tale that chronicles the impact of a singular event at a turning point in a young nation’s development. It is a confident, meticulously researched, and superbly written tale. Shortell perfectly captures the language and atmosphere and ethos surrounding those momentous times. The panoply of intriguing characters paraded for the reader includes housemaids and barmaids, a parliamentary page who is an aspiring journalist, doctors and detectives and attorneys and judges—and, not least, the passionate nationalists whose fervent political beliefs were intricately woven into the fabric of the earliest days of Canadian confederacy. It is a tale that will not only appeal to students of history, but to anyone in search of a well-told, gripping tale of murder and its aftermath.
Celtic Knot is published by Friesen Press.
Jim Napier is a professional crime-fiction reviewer based in Canada. Since 2005 his book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian newspapers and on multiple websites, and his own crime novel Legacy was published in April of 2017. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In April, CELTIC KNOT was launched in Toronto, and was a Number One Bestseller of the Week at BEN MCNALLY BOOKS. A first-person article about the book, and the 150th anniversary of the McGee assassination, ran in the Ottawa Citizen and National Post newspapers and on PostMedia's website.
In May, CELTIC KNOT was launched in Ottawa, the scene of the crime, with a bookstore launch and a review in THE OTTAWA REVIEW OF BOOKS. Ann Shortell was a featured author at POLITICS AND THE PEN, A Writers' Trust of Canada fundraising gala in Canada's capital. She was also interviewed about her novel on RogersTV's Ottawa Daytime show. The Kingston Whig-Standard ran an article by the author on how her hometown crept into her novel, influencing CELTIC KNOT's plot, character choices, tone and voice. The author had a book signing in Kingston and spoke at the Limestone Genre Expo that month. She also attended the Canadian Writers' Summit as a Writers' Union of Canada member, and was appointed a regional director of Crime Writers of Canada.
FOREWORD/CLARION REVIEWS reviewed Celtic Knot and rated the novel '5 OUT OF 5 STARS.
In June, CELTIC KNOT was chosen by SLEUTH OF BAKER STREET bookstore's MERCHANT OF MENACE newsletter as one of the featured titles for its newsletter--one of three 'Marian's Picks'.
In July, KIRKUS REVIEWS MAGAZINE chose to feature its CELTIC KNOT review in its biweekly magazine--an honour only granted to the top ten percent of indie reviews.
In August, Shortell was interviewed by Irish Radio Canada, and was featured in a curated promotion in the New York Review of Books Independent Press Listing.
September marks the sesquicentennial of the trial of Patrick James Whelan for the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee. The author will be signing copies of CELTIC KNOT at Perfect Books in Ottawa on September 15th, at Indigo Yonge & Eglinton bookstore in Toronto on September 22nd, and at Toronto's WORD ON THE STREET festival on September 23rd with both the Crime Writers of Canada and Sisters In Crime.