Thursday, 26 November 1998

Peter Tremayne: The Subtle Serpent (1996)

The Subtle Serpent coverEdition: Headline, 1996
Review number: 174

By the fourth of Tremayne's Sister Fidelma novels, she is well-established in the affections of fans. Having a female detective in a medieval crime novel is rather unusual, given the general attitude to women in the period. Fidelma is hardly a normal woman, being a king's sister, a nun, and a highly trained advocate in the Irish courts. Although Tremayne continually emphasises the humanity of traditional Irish law - particularly as a contrast to its rival Roman church law - I find it a little unconvincing. I don't know much about sixth century Irish life (and the blurb does say that Tremayne is an expert), but no matter how humane the legal code was, I suspect it was considerably less so in practice. The whole setting appears to be considerably idealised, though as I know much more about Ireland after the Viking raids which are supposed to have severely damaged the country's economy according to some sources, it may well have been a much richer place than the squalid barbarianism reported from later on in the Middle Ages.

The recurring characters are well-drawn and charming, the puzzles are actually quite difficult, and they are written in a pleasant prose style.

In this particular novel, Sister Fidelma is summoned to investigate the discovery of the headless, naked body of an unknown woman, found in the well of an abbey with a cross tied to one hand and a pagan curse to the other. All is not well in the abbey; its imperious abbess, Draigen, has a great hatred of her brother Adnár, who is the local secular authority. He and his spiritual adviser, Febal, in turn make accusations about her. When Fidelma discovers that Febal was once Draigen's husband - the story is set before the Irish chuch really accepted the supremacy of Rome, and before even the Roman Catholic church ordered its priests and nuns to be celibate - she realises that there is a long history of problems at the abbey. With the death of a second victim, the abbey's librarian Síomha, and the near lynching of a disabled nun as a witch believed to have caused the deaths by magic, Fidelma realises that this is a mystery which must be solved quickly.

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