The Sister Fidelma mysteries are written by Peter Tremayne. Set in Medievil Ireland, Sister Fidelma is a nun and legal advocate (called a dailaigh) who investigates and solves mysteries, and often acts as counsel for the defense. Usually these cases are murder, but theft, divorce and other parts of law are also covered.
Originally written as a set of short stories, they spun off into an ongoing series of novels. The short stories are still regularly published and a second collection has been released. The books are more a serial than a series, with each following on from the one before. There are a number of recurring characters such as Fidelma’s brother the King of Cashel, but as the books move on, these characters grow and change as do the main cast.
The strength of the series is the depth of background. Peter Tremayne is a pen name for a noted scholar of medievil Ireland, but as well as knowing his material he has the gift of bringing it to life. Throughout the novels, Fidelma is accompanied by Brother Eadulf, a saxon monk and magistrate who worked with her to solve the first novel’s mystery and elected to stay in Ireland as her companion. With Eadulf as the observer to who Fidelma has to explain the nuances of the culture there is little need for lectures or explanation to take you out of the text. These roles are reversed on their trip to the mainland, when Eadulf explains the details of Saxon culture to Fidelma.
The main problem with the character shows up quite clearly in the first anthology of Sister Fidelma stories. These do not feature Brother Eadulf and focus purely on Fidelma. In an atempt to show the various aspects of Irish culture at the time, Fidelma is incredibly talented, well-connected and performs many different roles. An Irish princess of high nobility, she is a religiouse (nun), a lawyer and holder of the second highest legal rank, an investigator, skilled in unarmed combat and warfare tactics, and beautiful. In a lesser author it would be hard to overcome, but it allows Tremayne to bring in the religous conflicts (the Irish Church against the Catholic) the politics of the time with minor kingships and warring families and the legal aspects of the culture, providing an all round view. The stories also have to explain each aspect of culture and law, and as they were written for publication seperately the character is introduced in each, which can become wearing. Once Tremayne introduces Eadulf and moves onto the novels the books show an improvement, as Eadulf is someone with whom Fidelma can match wits as an equal.
If the idea of a religious personage puts you in mind of Cadfael, then there might be a reason for that. Cadfael’s popularity partly inspired the books (and certainly affected Peter Tremayne’s pen name) as a way to illustrate the Irish legal system of the time.
For fans of the series, or lovers of irish history, the International Sister Fidelma Society has formed around the characters, with newsletters, interviews and information on the latest releases.