When last we (OK, I) saw Sister Fidelma, in The Monk Who Vanished, she was having a crisis of faith and duty (and with regard to her feeling for Brother Eadulf) so she decides that it’s time for a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James in Spain – Santiago de Compostela as it’s known these days. No sooner has she boarded the ship, along with some fellow pilgrims, than one of them vanishes over the side of the ship during a storm. But what was she doing on deck during the storm? And why is her cloak found hidden under her bunk with a blood-stained knife wound?
I’m bending the rules for my “Original Sins” thread as seventh century Ireland doesn’t really count as the Ancient World. But it doesn’t really fit into any other category so this is probably the closest fit. And besides, I wanted to read another in the series. To be honest, I’ll probably bend the rules again when I start looking at “Medieval Murders” as Peter Tremayne is an author who I really enjoy and has only written Sister Fidelma mysteries – unlike you-know-who who has covered virtually every period.
Anyway, this is the eighth in the series – and, so far, it’s been a string of well-constructed, multi-layered mysteries, coupled with a vibrant historical background. So what about this one?
Same old, same old. Not that that’s a bad thing of course. All the older ones were great.
The life on board a ship is brought to life vividly, with the ship’s crew, three in particular playing major roles in the story, and Fidelma is as strong a character as ever. Arguably her crisis of faith doesn’t really seem to be bothering her, but as this is really just an excuse she is using to get some distance from Eadulf, that’s fair enough. The pilgrims get less page time, but they are distinctive characters and when the murderer stands revealed, at no point do you find yourself flicking back to work out which pilgrim it is. One thing that I’ve occasionally criticised Paul Doherty for in the past for is making a crowd of similar characters not distinctive enough – although as they’re usually cannon fodder, it rarely affects the denouement – but Peter Tremayne doesn’t fall into this trap. Each of the characters get at least one distinctive scene.
As per usual with Tremayne, there are several levels to the plot, seemingly unrelated events – including one very good twist – that, at the story nears its end, suddenly become related and related in a convincing way. There are enough clues for you to work out what’s going on – some of them given early on – but I doubt most readers will work it out properly.
I must one raise one minor issue. I praised The Slayers of Seth for its immersive recreation of Ancient Egypt. This comes close, but every now and again, a word in the book – not spoken by the characters, at least – but in the narrative snaps me back to the present. Jargon. Gravity. Two words that I wouldn’t expect from 7th Century Ireland.
Putting that to one side though, this is a great read. As ever with this series, highly recommended.