Peter Tremayne, Absolution by Murder (Headline Book Publishing, 1994)

Ireland has suffered so much from religious strife that it is easy to forget that it was one of the few places converted to Christianity peacefully. My Frankish ancestors were baptized at spear-point, my Irish ones welcomed Patrick, Palladius and the rest open-heartedly.

The Church of Patrick and Brigid owed much of its success to its ability to adopt and adapt what was good in Irish society while introducing Christian beliefs and values. (The Church of Rome was never good at that, as witness the Frankish-inspired insistence on imposing the Latin liturgy and eliminating the vernacular, but I digress.)

In this world of harmony between Church and Society walks Sister Fidelma, religieuse of the community of St. Brigid, and dálaigh of the Brehon courts, a high-born, highly-educated advocate whose status is just slightly below that of a king.

But Fidelma is called to leave her native land, and we meet her on the way to the Synod of Whitby. It is the year 664, and the Celtic and Roman churches in Britain and Ireland, those converted by missionaries from Ireland and those owing allegiance to missionaries sent by Rome, are at war over the many details of their common faith, most especially pertaining to the calculation of the date of Easter. Fidelma has been summoned to act as legal advisor to an old friend, Abbess Étain of Kildare.

Shortly after Fidelma's arrival, all Hell breaks loose and there are several murders. She and a Saxon monk, Brother Eadulf, are asked by Oswy, King of Northumbria, to solve the crimes. They must work quickly, for political as well as religious reasons. Despite the deep cultural gulf between them, Fidelma and Eadulf learn to respect each other and grudgingly become friends.

I don't have access to the sources to check Peter Tremayne's scholarship on the details of life and religion in 7th-century Ireland or Britain. I do know he takes a few liberties with history. For instance, he condenses the Synod of Whitby, which lasted several months, into a few days. Also, while my Oxford Dictionary of Saints says that Deusdedit, Archbishop of Canterbury, died of the plague in 664, it also says he was buried in Canterbury, not cremated on a beach in Whitby. I doubt that most readers would care.

I haven't yet decided whether I want to read any more of Sister Fidelma's adventures or not. Absolution by Murder is a fascinating glimpse of a lesser-known era in European history, showing a major step in the evolution of Celtic roots, found in so many works of fantasy, into modern Irish society. The glimpses of several people now revered as saints, such as Colmán, Wilfrid, Cuthbert, Agilbert and Hilda, are also very interesting. However, I'm not sure I like Sister Fidelma herself. She's an arrogant young woman — I may have been just as bad at her age. I think I'll investigate some of the short stories featuring her before deciding whether or not to read the whole series.

Absolution by Murder is the first full-length Sister Fidelma adventure. She was introduced in four short stories published in different anthologies in October 1993: "Murder in Repose", "The High King's Sword", "Hemlock at Vespers" and "Murder by Miracle." The other books in the series are: Shroud For The Archbishop, 1995; Suffer Little Children, 1995; The Subtle Serpent, 1996; The Spider's Web, 1997; Valley Of The Shadow, 1998; The Monk Who Vanished, 1999; Act Of Mercy, 1999; Hemlock at Vespers: Fifteen Sister Fidelma Mysteries, 2000; Our Lady Of Darkness, 2000; Smoke in the Wind, 2001; The Haunted Abbot, 2002; and Act Of Mercy, 2003.

Peter Tremayne is the pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, a Celtic scholar. He was born in England, but his father was Irish and his mother Breton. He has written prolifically, both under his own name and as Peter Tremayne, producing scholarly works as well as novels and short stories.

[Faith J. Cormier]

An excellent Web source on Sister Fidelma and her world is www.sisterfidelma.com.