In this mystery, a pig plays a leading role

Joseph Caldwell’s whodunit is light on chills and thrills, but heavy on Irish charm

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Lots of Americans vacation in Ireland. But Aaron McCloud is a little unusual, as tourists go. He hasn’t come for the lush scenery, rich history, knitted goods, or to seek his ancestral roots. Instead, “Aaron McCloud had come to Ireland, to County Kerry, to the shores of the Western Sea, so he could, in solitary majesty, feel sorry for himself.”

So opens Joseph Campbell’s sixth novel, The Pig Did It, a fizzy, free-wheeling farce that reads as if it’s narrated by Garrison Keillor in a leprechaun suit. An overseas ticket is an expensive way to wallow in self-pity, but poor Aaron hardly gets time to ruminate over his lost love – the plainest, least-talented student in his writing class – before his plans, and his bus trip, are rudely interrupted by a herd of runaway pigs.

The passengers all disembark – “a frail elderly woman elbowed her way to the front with all the courtesy and consideration of a fullback” – to help round up the stray porcines and/or commentate from the sidelines. In the process, Aaron becomes attracted to the comely swineherd and misses the bus.

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One of the pigs attaches itself to Aaron and follows him home to his Aunt Kitty’s house, where it proceeds to wreck a shed, root up the vegetable garden, and uncover the shallow grave in which are buried the bones of Declan Tovey.

Declan, a tinker by trade, may have been the lover of both Aunt Kitty, who supports herself by writing “corrections” to 19th-century novels, and the owner of the misbehaving porker, Lolly McKeever. A third suspect, a local farmer named Sweeney, has his own reasons for perhaps bashing Declan over the head (or poisoning him – no one’s sure how he died).

Aaron’s attempts to bring the police in on the murder investigation are roundly shouted down by both Kitty and Lolly. As they try to give the murdered man a proper burial, Declan’s bones get manhandled more than any corpse since “Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Mystery buffs should put away their forensics kits: Campbell is far more interested in detailing every shot in a game of darts at a pub than examining motive or evidence. In that regard, “The Pig Did It” sometimes veers into “Waking Ned Devine” territory, where the colorful characters are so darned busy being wacky and Irish that you just want to drape a tea cozy on them.

Still, it’s a charming novel, and for most of its 200 pages “The Pig Did It” has no trouble kicking up its heels and snorting with delighted abandon.

Aunt Kitty’s revisions are a hoot. In her version of “Jane Eyre,” Rochester is the one who flings himself from the roof of Thornfield Hall, and Jane nurses Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, back to sanity. Her new and improved “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” would delight the many high-schoolers who find Clair something of a pompous jerk.

And Campbell delights in tweaking Aaron’s injured vanity: “Today, Aaron decided, he would begin to grieve in earnest. He would walk the lonely beach, mocked by gulls, uncaring, his every step a stately rebuke to the malign forces that had blighted his fate. His was the tragedy of a man who couldn’t have his own way....” he intones to himself. “He had come to deepen the lines in his forehead, to implant a mournfulness into his eyes that would forever silence the joyful and inspire shame in the indifferent.”

While some of Sweeney’s speechifying on the nature of the sea and centuries-old feuds plays a little too stereo-lyrically, Campbell nails descriptions removed from the twee, such as Aunt Kitty’s terrifying kitchen wallpaper, debris-stuffed couch, and screen door. “This American artifact was introduced into Ireland by his aunt when she returned from her college days at Fordham in the Bronx and realized there was no real reason why the flies had to be invited into the family kitchen. In deference to its newfound Irish identity she referred to it as a mesh door, allowing the Americans to keep their own designations.”

And the dialogue between the four coconspirators (one of whom may be a killer) zings along nicely.

All this goodwill comes in handy, since the over-the-top ending literally takes the plot right off a cliff. Campbell is planning two more books covering the exploits of the errant oinker (probably for the sheer glee of naming something the “Pig Trilogy”).

It’s nice to see a pork-barrel project that favors bookworms for a change.

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