Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Peter Tremayne's sister act

Not many crime-fiction characters have societies devoted to them; Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma is among those who do.

I've just made my first acquaintance with the good investigating advocate and woman religious of seventh-century Ireland, and it's enough to know that Tremayne is a lively guide to an interesting but remote period of Western history.

How remote? More than a century before the Book of Kells, back to a time and place when Celtic and Roman churches contended for supremacy, when men and women shared abbeys and monastic foundations where they raised their children in the service of God. Ireland stood out at the time not just for its learning, Tremayne writes in a brief historical introduction, but for the opportunities it offered women:

"The Irish laws gave more rights and protection to women than any other western law code at the time or since. Women could, and did, aspire to all offices and professions as co-equals with men. They could be political leaders, command their people in battle as warriors, be physicians, local magistrates, poets, artisans, lawyers and judges. ... Women were protected by laws against sexual harassment; against discrimination; from rape; they had the right of divorce on equal terms ... "
Tremayne, it seems, chose a suitable time and place for a series about a woman religious and dálaigh, or investigating magistrate.

The first in the series, Absolution by Murder, opens in the year 664, with Fidelma and a range of dignitaries arriving for a debate between the Celtic and Roman churches, the famous Synod of Whitby. What better background for a murder mystery than a momentous historical event? And what better opening for a crime story than a group of travelers finding a body hanging from a tree?

"It was not the fact that a man had been hanged on a crossroad tree that caused the small party of travelers to halt. The travelers had become used to witnessing ritual executions and punishments since they had crossed from the land of Rheged into the kingdom of Northumbria. ... The sight of one more unfortunate suspended on a tree no longer troubled them. What had caused the party to draw rein on their mounts, an assortment of horses and mules, was something else."
I'm just two chapters in, but I can see already that Tremayne has an interesting way of handling dialogue. Without resorting to excessive archaisms or grating faux-medieval speak, he gives speakers a slight formality of tone. This adds flavor without hitting the reader over the head. Of course, most of the speakers thus far have been educated ecclesiastics, which could account for the hint of formality.

For some delightfully blunt thoughts from Peter Tremayne, see this interview on Crime Always Pays.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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9 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

Cue Billie Holiday.

Already I've learned something, though. I had no clue Ireland was so progressive back then. When you consider how contentious divorce became in that country post-WW2, it's doubly interesting.

September 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Yes, even if that account is a bit exaggerated, it's pretty impressive. I had read that Irish abbesses were commanding figures even before the seventh century, but I had no idea about all those other roles women could occupy in early Irish society.

With respect to the later Irish history you cite. a lot can happen in 1,300 years to change a society's outlook on things.

Now, let's see how all this figures in the story. One thing did stop me in my reading after i posted the comment. There's a reference to Fidelma's interest in the countries through which she passes on her way from Ireland to Northumbria, and she reflects that she might have chosen to study history had she not studied law. I'm not sure there was much of a conception of history as a distinct field of study at that time. I'll try to remember to look into the matter. or maybe even ask the author, if I can manage it.

September 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Re Billie Holiday, the fruit on these Irish trees would not have been so strange to these travelers. although this particular tree held an interesting variety.

September 06, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'm now trying to remember whether Chaucer mentioned lynching anywhere in The Canterbury Tales. ;)

September 06, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

It's no wonder Chaucer has been the hero of a series of a series of contemporary mysteries: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/m/philippa-morgan/

September 06, 2007  
Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Peter, thanks for your kind words and interest in my comments on The Skull Mantra. I've linked from my blog back to yours for my original comments on China and Qiu Xialong's books (rather than plagiarize myself), and I added my review of the Pattison book today. Unfortunately, I couldn't find my copy, so I did it all from memory- I hope it is helpful. I look forward to following your site. Best wishes,
Jim Bashkin

September 07, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks for the links and the mention. I'll look for your comments on The Skill Mantra. That's a hell of a title, and I haven't even seen the book yet.

September 07, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting ideas! I think that we can discuss such things on our women's forum:)

December 26, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I shall look in to see if the discussion has started!

December 26, 2007  

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