At the end of the last book, Sister Fidelma, 7th century Irish nun/advocate of the law, left Northumbria, heading to Rome, alongwith her compatriot Brother Eadulf and a representation from Canterbury, including the Archbishop Designate – who I won’t name as he’s a character in the previous mystery. The Archbishop brings with him a number of holy relics, but before you know it, he’s been garrotted in his chambers and the relics have been stolen. A monk, Brother Ronan, is seen fleeing from his chambers, so clearly he’s the guilty party…
Sister Fidelma and Brother Eadulf are asked to investigate, so as not to cause friction with the Saxon church, but while Eadulf is happy to accept the obvious, Fidelma isn’t. If Ronan was the killer, why was the body cold minutes after he was seen leaving? How were the relics stolen – as Ronan was spotted fleeing with empty hands? Fidelma soon suspects that is much more to this than first realised… obviously, as it wouldn’t be much of a mystery, would it?
So, after Absolution By Murder, this is the second Sister Fidelma mystery. So how does it measure up in the historical mystery stakes?
First of all, I apologise in advance for any inaccuracies here. I was very tired when I read this book – reading chunks of mysteries when you can’t sleep at 3am is a good way of dozing off, but not so good for following the story. But my “rule” is, if I read it, I blog about it, and there’s going to be a Peter Tremayne tab appearing soon, so I need to be a completist about this. I will be briefer than usual – possibly…
OK, first of all, the mystery. It’s a classic, simple mystery, reminiscent of Agatha Christie at her most average. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not an insult – average Agatha Christie, like Peril At End House or Murder At The Vicarage, is a very good standard. But good Christie has that extra something, like The ABC Murders or A Murder Is Announced – which is obvious, but is still very well done. So, we have a line-up of suspects, all with something to hide. Red herrings abound, the crime isn’t exactly what we think it is and long-forgotten motives from the past rear their heads. I think the murderer is less guessable than in the previous book – where there were a couple of clues that by themselves fingered the bad guy – but there is enough there for you to work out what’s going on. Certainly not obvious or simple though, and there’s a nice double bluff going on here as well. I’ll say no more about that though.
Historically, it’s fascinating to read about a Rome some 200 years after Paul Doherty’s Rome series – especially as the Empress Helena in those books is venerated as a Saint here. Nice to see how things have changed over the centuries. We get a bit more of a lesson about the frictions in the church at the time but at no point does the history get in the way of the plot or the characters.
I speculated in the last review that Eadulf, Fidelma’s partner, would hopefully come into his own as the series progressed. My one gripe about this one is that he seems to have become thicker – given that he has training in medicine, he doesn’t spot the importance of the body being cold, for example. There are so many problems with the theory of Ronan being the murderer that by sticking to that theory, he looks like a bit of a moron, to be honest.
But overall, a decent mystery with engaging characters and a fascinating backdrop. Looking forward to seeing how the series progresses.