While taking an online course on Celtic Spirituality with the Oates Institute, I have been doing some reading and research on the saints, traditions, and arts connected to the Celtic expression of the Christian faith. I was surprised to happen upon a series of mystery novels that give unique insight into the “Golden Age” of Celtic Christianity. Set in the seventh century C.E., the Sister Fidelma series by Peter Tremayne (the pseudonym of Peter Berresford Ellis, a scholar and expert on the ancient Celts) introduce the reader to the rich culture of the Irish church during its time of conflict with the Roman church.
The protagonist is not only a sister of the community of St. Brigid of Kildare, but she is also a dalaigh or advocate of the ancient law courts of Ireland. Not only does she find her religious tradition in conflict with the Roman church, but she discovers that the rest of the world is not ready for a strong, intelligent woman who likes to “solve puzzles” or mysteries. Fidelma has grown up in a world where women, even female slaves, have certain rights and the High King is first among equals who governs at the will of other clan leaders. The learning of the Irish is highlighted when an eclipse takes place. The Irish all seem to understand what is happening while Romans, Saxons, and others quack in fear.
In the initial book of the series, Absolution by Murder, Fidelma finds herself at the Council of Whitbea (Whitby) where Roman and Celtic church leaders provide arguments over which tradition shall be predominant among the Saxons of Britain. She is tasked to work with Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk, to find a murderer. Eadulf is not only a foil for her but he also interprets for her the unfamiliar and often savage customs of the Saxons.
Although the mystery itself is not that complex, Tremayne’s vivid descriptions of the settings and customs of the period are fascinating. He uses a number of accepted set pieces of the mystery genre in telling his story. For example, the final disclosure of the murder’s identity takes place in a drawing room setting that Agatha Christie could have written.
If the other books in the series are like the first, they will provide the reader a painless and enjoyable introduction to the Christian world of the seventh century.