As we head towards my first blogiversary – not my choice of word, but the accepted phrase, apparently – it’s time for another branch on the tree of historical mysteries. Heading further into the dark ages, namely 7th century Britain, we find Sister Fidelma, an Irish nun/judge. That may sound unlikely, but take a look at the number of publications that Peter Tremayne aka Peter Berresford Ellis has produced on the subject and I think you’ll see that he knows what he’s talking about. Add in the fact that Fidelma has appeared in twenty novels and two collections of short stories so far and it would seem that it’s about time that I checked this series out.
This is the opening book of the series – definitely in the habit now of reading series in order – and we see Fidelma accompanying a delegation from Ireland to a synod in Northumbria, held to discuss the differences between the Roman and Columban churches, such as the date of Easter. When the prime speaker on behalf of the Columban cause, the Abbess Etain, is found in her room with her throat cut, Fidelma is tasked with investigating the murder, alongside Brother Eadulf, an emissary of Rome. Is someone out to disrupt the talks? If so, which camp is responsible? A second murder sends everything into confusion and Fidelma has to sort everything out, including an imminent civil war.
So far, opening books in series, especially when they’ve effectively been the first novels for that author, such as Satan In St Mary’s or The Sanctuary Seeker have been solid at best. So, have we found a book to buck that trend?
Most definitely so.
As with Paul Doherty’s work, which I’d say this book bears the most similarity to stylistically, there’s a lot of well-researched historical background behind this story which is fascinating to read but which doesn’t get in the way of the story. The characters are well-drawn and the important ones are distinctive. The mystery is intriguing and goes all over the place before the murderer is revealed and the clues are there to be spotted.
Fidelma is an interesting character, standing up to the local King, Oswy, and his slightly insane son, doing what is right, despite what could turn out to be terrible consequences. Eadulf, who, if you’ve read anything about this series, is Fidelma’s partner in sleuthing beyond this book, gets a shorter shrift. If you didn’t know this was a “Sister Fidelma Mystery” then you might think that Eadulf was being set up to be the sleuth, given that he has a talent for solving puzzles apparently, but every important discovery is made by Fidelma, making him more of a typical sidekick that would appear at first. Maybe he’ll come into his own in later books…
Oh, and there will be reviews of later books. I’ve ordered the next three already and if they’re like this, there’s a good chance that a Sister Fidelma tab will be appearing at the top of the blog.
Any criticisms? Well, for a well-read mystery lover, there were a couple of clues, one for motive and one for opportunity that stood out like a sore thumb for me, one of them being very early in the book, so the murderer wasn’t exactly a surprise. But that might just be me – did anyone else who’s read the book spot the killer so easily?
But overall, I really enjoyed this book. Recommended.