Dissent and Murder in the Cloister: Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma

Mar 11, 2017 | 2017 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

No wild beasts are so cruel as the Christians in their dealings with each other.
— Ammianus Marcellinus (c. AD 330-95)

St. Patrick’s Day approaches on March 17 and those of us of Irish descent can justifiably dance a little, drink Guinness, Jameson, or Bushmills, and dance some more. Happily too, this year I discovered the Sister Fidelma novels of Peter Tremayne (a.k.a. Peter Bradford Ellis) so will enjoy reading all the series and probably Tremayne’s Irish history works as well. I began with the first three Fidelma books to get a feel for what the author found so fascinating about seventh century Britain, and soon realized that his fascination began with his own Saxon/Celtic heritage. Too, the controversies between the Roman and Celtic Church doctrines and practices in the seventh century make fascinating reading. These are the early years of the Catholic Church as it formed doctrine, but the controversies of kingship and governance in the British Isles at this time were so complex.

bookAbsolution by Murder (1994) introduces Sr. Fidelma who has been called as an advocate of the law courts to strengthen the cause of the Celtic Catholic Church as it faces debate with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The question is called as to which church practices will be accepted by the king of Northumbria, and consequently, Britain as a whole. In Shroud for the Archbishop (1996), Fidelma is drafted again, this time to deliver messages to Pope Vitalianus in Rome and to witness the investiture of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the same Wighard we met in the previous novel. Unfortunately, he is murdered before the investiture can take place so Fidelma’s talents as an investigator are again requested. The murder of a visiting scholar causes Fidelma’s brother, Colgu, King of Muman, to request her help investigating the crime in Suffer Little Children (1995). Fidelma finds that the scholar’s murder is woven into the fabric of the rivalry between the petty Irish kingdoms of Muman and Laigin as they search for a missing heir to the throne.

When the primary advocate to argue the Celtic church’s position is murdered before the debates can begin, in Absolution by Murder, Fidelma’s training in law and with the investigative process makes her the best candidate to lead an investigation into the death of the primary spokesperson, Etain, Abbess of Kildare. To her dismay, she is joined by a Saxon representative of the Roman church, Brother Eadulf, in sorting matters out. Luckily Eadulf is a man of principle and understanding, so he is indeed valuable not only as an investigator but as an apothecary and positive voice for Saxon civilization—in stark contrast to too many Saxon nobles vying for power. Etain’s is only the first murder as the synod proceeds, and Fidelma becomes a target for the murder(s) herself.

bookThe Lateran Palace in Rome, the seat of the Pope, is the setting for Shroud for the Archbishop as Fidelma and Eadulf are both called to Rome to investigate the murder of the Archbishop elect of Canterbury for both the Irish and Roman Church. An Irish brother is caught fleeing from the rooms of the bishop-elect so is naturally the chief murder suspect. War between the Irish and Saxon kingdoms is perilously close as Fidelma and Eadulf work to avert disaster and discover the murderer before religious war breaks out.

booktitle=Fidelma rides on horseback into Suffer Little Children as the novel begins, conscious of the surrounding flora furling in their petals and pine cones to brace for a violent thunderstorm. She has been urgently sent for by her brother, Colgu, King of Cashel in the south of Ireland near her home abbey in Kildare, as she returns to Ireland from Rome. Although she disregards the predictions of a wise woman who warns her death resides at her destination, Fidelma finds herself among hostile strangers in her brother’s seat where her skills as an advocate of the ancient laws of Ireland are badly needed to keep the peace with neighboring the kingdom of Fearna. The murder of a visiting scholar under the auspices of Fearna’s king in the library of Ros Ailither Abbey nearby has put the fragile peace between the two kingdoms in jeopardy, and Fidelma’s brother is depending upon her investigative skills to avoid heavy fines and perhaps even war due to murder.

Peter Tremayne expects a lot out of his readers. The Fidelma novels are so full of Celtic, Saxon, and Latin vocabulary, as well as multiple characters with names out of the cultures’ history, that it takes focus not to flounder. Thankfully, most editions have character lists and maps as well as educative prefaces to set up the complex read these books offer. I have to say, I loved every minute. I was especially delighted to learn that the laws of this time in Ireland’s history were so inclusive regarding the education and employment of women. Since Tremayne contrasts Ireland’s laws and customs with those of Saxon Britain and the early Roman Catholic Church, it’s fair to say the latter two do not come off well at all in terms of equal rights. Fidelma takes equality as a given, so the culture clash among all three are always lively and dangerous. When we met Fidelma in “Absolution by Murder,” she was already a well-established advocate of Celtic law so the drama of her facing the dominant Saxon culture in Britain and the increasingly dominant Roman Church time after time is fully realized, engaging and—so far—never repetitive. If you happen to be Irish at all, you’ll take pride in our heritage when reading these novels. They make Guinness even more enjoyable than usual.

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.

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