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Absolution by Murder (A Sister Fidelma Mystery) (Mystery of Ancient Ireland) - Peter Tremayne What to label Absolution by Murder? Celtic propaganda? A hit piece on ancient Angle, Saxon and Roman cultures? A theological and philosophical debate? A sexless romance novel? A murder mystery? Actually, it's a bit of everything rolled into a 272-page book. There's much to love and loathe in this first installment of the Sister Fidelma series of historical mysteries.

I took away plenty from the book. First and foremost, I learned that Tremayne, as a scholar of all things Irish, loves ancient Irish culture and Celtic Christianity, and finds Angles, Saxons, and Roman theology lacking. While the Irish bathe regularly, the bath-averse Saxons must cover their gag-inducing body odor with overwhelming clouds of incense. While the enlightened Celts practice restorative forms of justice, the barbaric Saxons prefer stoning, hanging, flogging, and other forms of torture. While the well-balanced Celtic faith allows their religious to marry, the prudish Romans force the unnatural condition of celibacy on their monastics. While the evolved Celts allow women to take on positions of leadership in the political and religious realms, the patriarchal Saxons seem to relish finding as many ways as possible to belittle women. Tremayne bludgeons readers' brains continuously with his learned brand of cultural elitism. While I may agree with most of his preferences for how the world should work, I found his proselytizing tone extremely annoying at times.

Then there's Tremayne's incessant info dumping. It's one thing to provide useful information on characters and historical context, but quite another to assault readers with every minor detail, including challenging place names with little to no relevance for the story's outcome.

On a more positive note, Absolution by Murder reminds me that, more often than not, debates over church dogma and doctrine come down to power grabs. Sure, many Mothers and Fathers of the church have argued sincerely on points of great importance and pastoral relevance. But debates over scriptural inerrancy, a proper tonsure, papal infallibility, limiting salvation to certain folks, the dating of Easter, whether or not birth control may be used, original sin, how to position your fingers for a blessing, restricting participation in the Eucharist, etc.? A desire to secure power and control over others plays a big part in the proceedings.

Though I enjoyed much about Tremayne's handling of these theological and philosophical debates, I found myself wanting a deeper discussion. Is Tremayne so blinded by his love of Celtic Christianity that he can't acknowledge the pain experienced as Christianity encountered the traditional Druidic/pagan systems of ancient Ireland? Is there any beauty and good to be found in Roman Christianity? Must criminality and guilt be made so obvious with unfortunate scars and ugly or awkward appearance? Much of my struggle has to do with the black-and-white treatment of good and evil. I wanted more nuance.

In looking at what I've written above, I'm somewhat surprised that I gave Absolution by Murder three stars. It seems one or two stars might be in order. What can I say, I love Sister Fidelma, and appreciate Tremayne's creating such a strong heroine. There's a genuine sweetness in the blossoming romance between Fidelma and Eadulf. And as a theologian, I find the period of church history chosen by Tremayne more than a little fascinating. And though I give Tremayne a hard time about his fanboy treatment of Celtic Christianity, I love the tradition as well. Absolution by Murder left me wanting to know more about the characters, relationships, and what life would have been like for the religious of that time and place. I will continue with the Sister Fidelma series while hoping for a more nuanced and less infodumpy treatment of the subject.