Ever since I finished reading all the Dame Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer (and the Player Joliffe mysteries too), and having read most of Ellis Peters' Cadfael mysteries, I've been a at bit of a loss for historical mysteries with clerical detectives. That gap in my reading life has for the time being been filled with a new series.
I have just encountered (for the first time) the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne (one of Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis' pseudonyms). Hemlock at Vespers: Fifteen Sister Fidelma Mysteries is a good introduction to the series, consisting as it does of short stories set throughout the earlier years of the seventh century Irish religieuse's crime-solving career.
What makes these stories so much fun is the background - the Irish church is still in full flower and outside cultural influences have not yet swept away a society in which women had a legal, social and economic status that would not be seen again in Western civilisation until the early 20th century.
Sister Fidelma is a dalaigh (her culture's version of a lawyer) one who is authorised to conduct investigations as well as argue legal cases before a Brehon judge. She holds one of the highest rankings possible in the Irish legal system, that of anruth, which gives her a social status equivalent to that of a minor king. While she is clearly Christian - although firmly on the Irish side of the religious divide, including preferring Pelagian to Augustinian philosophy - it is also suggested on several occasions that this is more a matter of following social expectations than a religious vocation. As Tremayne writes, before the arrival of Christianity, members of the professions - doctors, lawyers, educators and so on - were usually Druids. Once the Church supplanted the Druidic orders, those in the professions tended to join the Church instead. This was, of course, much more palatable in this eta, when celibacy was optional and the Irish Church operated religious houses where married clerics could live together and raise their children.
The stories themselves are interesting glimpses into another time and culture, as well as being decent mysteries. Tremayne's skill as a writer develops as one reads through in chronological order, although his phrasing remains vaguely stilted throughout, perhaps as an intentional choice to convey the nuances of what was a highly status-conscious society. He also has a few "tics" that show up mostly in describing Sister Fidelma, notably the ubiquitous references to her "rebellious" red hair.
But Fidelma herself is sufficiently fascinating a character, and the setting of the stories is so interesting, that I did not have much difficulty in ignoring the tics and just enjoying the stories.