One of the more pleasant surprises in reading occurs when you find a jewel that has flown under your radar for some time. Back in March I was at our local public library (a blessing indeed when you have one less than a mile from your home) feverishly completing my taxes because I felt competent enough to crunch through the 1040, Schedule A, and the other demonic host of federal forms without the direction of my accountant. Taking a break from the sheaves of receipts and charitable donation spreadsheets, I walked along the bookshelves at the end of the fiction section (where else?) and noticed a slew of volumes in Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mysteries. After subsequently working through his first and fifth novels in the series (Absolution by Murder, The Spider's Web), I discovered one of his recent books goes back to the time period in between the two I read. While Absolution by Murder takes place at the Synod of Whitby in seventh-century Wales, and The Spider's Web in the early medieval kingdom of Ireland, Behold a Pale Horse (Minotaur Books, 2011) shows Sister Fidelma caught in the waves of intrigue at the Abbey of Bobium north of Genoa, Italy.
Tremayne creates a compelling character in Sister Fidelma. The sister of a reigning king in Ireland in the 600s, Fidelma is both a religieux (dedicated to the work of the church) and a dalaigh (an advocate of the laws of Ireland). Her shrewd and logical mind grasps details small and great, noticing microscopic matters and the weaving together of the big picture. Her fiery determination matches her flaming red hair and reveals her as a sleuthing force to be reckoned with. Idealistic more than pragmatic, Fidelma rarely thinks about consequences and tends to barge into areas that most would avoid. Whether verbally grilling an archbishop or abbot, a king or queen, an aged physician or pagan lord, Fidelma knows one speed only. Little wonder that there is a Sister Fidelma Society of devoted admirers of Tremayne's protagonist.
As one who studied Celtic history at the university level, Tremayne ably paints a compelling and vivid setting. One can practically inhale the scents of an abbey refectory at dinner, the incense used during vespers in the chapel, the manure of a feudal lord's stables, or the salt spray of the ocean. His concise but helpful prologues help sketch the lay of the land in the Irish church of Fidelma's days. Tremayne utilizes careful research and a multitude of details, but the forest is never overly tree-infested and he gives the reader room to breathe. The plot moves along and never slogs down in a quagmire of facts and figures.
Not everyone will be a Tremayne fan. There are occasions when several names of characters bear high similarity to each other. When I read Behold a Pale Horse, I had to write down and delineate many characters whose names begin with 'W' as I had difficulty keeping them straight. But Tremayne makes up for this by telling a whopping good yarn that lights the path for the reader without giving away the essentials of the mystery. In this, he avoids the oversimplication of many other writers on one hand and the postmodern excess of an Umberto Eco on the other. The Sister Fidelma series can be read in order, but they are also satisfying as stand-alone novels. Either way, Tremayne is worth checking out. Some time spent in the company of Sister Fidelma is time well spent.