(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma stories depend for their success on several elements: a fully realized heroine, a historical context that permits her to function as both a religious person and a detective, and mysteries that engage the reader as they attract the interest of Fidelma. The Sister Fidelma stories typically integrate these elements effectively.

Tremayne persuasively depicts the substantial rights accorded Irish women in the seventh century. Fidelma’s education at the bardic school at Tara to the level of anruth, one degree below the highest level possible, and her profession as a dálaigh, or advocate, of the Brehon Court thus appear convincing within the narratives and also give her access to the world of crime. Contributing to Fidelma’s ability to move freely at the highest levels of Irish society is her royal status as a sister to the Muman king, Colgú.

Although a nun, Fidelma is sexually experienced, acknowledging in Shroud for the Archbishop: A Sister Fidelma Mystery (1995) a number of earlier affairs. In Act of Mercy: A Celtic Mystery (1999), she encounters her first lover, and throughout the series, she progresses in her relationship with Brother Eadulf from partner in solving crimes to friend, lover, wife, and mother of Eadulf’s child. All of this is possible for Fidelma because the seventh century Celtic church, as the stories often remind readers, did not require celibacy for religious vocations.

In an age not far removed from the pre-Christian world of Druids and in which many remnants of the old ways still persisted, Fidelma is very much a transitional woman. In at least two novels (Shroud for the Archbishop and Suffer Little Children: A Sister Fidelma Mystery, 1995), for example, she practices dercad, the ancient Druidic form of meditation. In addition, she eschews the type of individual confession to a priest favored by the Roman church, instead taking a soul-friend, or anamchara, who serves as her confidant, spiritual guide, and personal confessor.

Tremayne’s use of historical events, including the Synod of Whitby (664), and depiction of such seventh century cultural artifacts as beehive huts, the clepsydra (a water clock), hanging leather satchels used for storing manuscripts in monastery libraries, and texts written in the Ogham alphabet add to the appeal of the Fidelma stories.

The mysteries confronting Sister Fidelma challenge her intellectually and often place her in physical danger. Brother Eadulf assists Fidelma but inevitably proves far less perceptive than she. Fidelma’s recognition of the uncomfortable position in which her superior talents place Eadulf contributes to the psychological realism that characterizes the account of their relationship. Once Fidelma...

(The entire section is 1160 words.)