Peter Tremayne, Smoke in the Wind (St. Martin's Minotaur, 2003)

What better setting than the Dark Ages for a mystery novel? The upheaval and uncertain politics of the era provide many opportunities for plots, conspiracies, and high crimes. Build in enough detail to immerse the reader in an unfamiliar setting and the result is a captivating novel that will tempt you to read it in as few sittings as possible.

Peter Tremayne's Smoke in the Wind is exactly this sort of book. The latest in his mystery novels featuring Sister Fidelma of Cashel, Smoke in the Wind combines a murder mystery with a political intrigue. The political mystery is a launching platform for Tremayne's detailed recreation of early medieval Britain. Tremayne (real name, Peter Berresford Ellis) is a scholar of the period as well as a fiction author. His expertise serves him well; Tremayne excels at educating the reader about the era without disrupting the story or appearing pedantic. The ancient setting comes completely unforced to Tremayne. He's at home immersed in details of medieval law and society but not so in love with the details that they obscure the story. Instead they're accents. The mystery develops organically out of the setting.

This is an intricate mystery. Smoke in the Wind has two main plot lines, multiple crimes, and differing shades of guilt and responsibility. Tremayne continues to introduce new twists for most of the book. Tremayne knots all of this together without the appearance of a contrived story. A simple murder mystery connects to the disappearance of a group of monks, with a parallel story of political intrigue and plotting in the Welsh kingdom of Dyfed. Fidelma is called in to investigate the monks' disappearance, but is drawn into the other events when the original investigator for the murder is himself killed. With her companion religious Eadulf, Fidelma must solve both mysteries to save both herself and Dyfed.

A complex story flows easily from Tremayne's pen. Starting with an introduction where he outlines some important details of medieval Welsh law, Tremayne builds a fully-fleshed-out setting. The characters, Saxon, Welsh, and Irish are completely believable. Every major character's emotional nuances are on vivid display as well. The hostility and distrust of Saxon and Welsh for each other is palpable; Tremayne realistically covers the issue from both groups' perspectives. This added emotional depth highlights the benefit of reading a good historical mystery – the pure entertainment of the mystery is enhanced by history that adds an extra dimension to the story.

Smoke in the Wind is a real page-turner. Even once you've figured out the mystery, the story grabs you so thoroughly that it is difficult to put the book down. Coupled with a highly detailed and researched setting, Smoke in the Wind is a history lesson you'll enjoy so much that you won't notice you're receiving it.

[Eric Eller]

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