Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Dancing with Demons by Peter Tremayne

Seventeenth of the Sister Fidelma mysteries, Dancing with Demons is set in Éireann (Ireland) in the seventh century. As I’ve said before, I am often a bit wary of the historical detective genre – it really seemed to take off after Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries and a few are excellent, but the quality can be very patchy, and some are downright awful. I’ve read several of this series, though (all out of order) and they are both good and original in concept. To give you a flavour, I thought I would quote the paragraph which introduces Fidelma in this book:
Fidelma of Cashel halted her horse on a rise of the road, which ran from Cluain Meala, the Field of Honey, the settlement on the banks of the broad River Siúr, where she had spent the night, north to her brother’s fortress. She had spent a week away from Cashel in attendance at Lios Mhór, the great abbey and settlement site beyond the mountain range of Mhaoldomhnaigh. Although she had slept well the previous night, Fidelma felt exhausted after a week’s hard work. She was a dálaigh, or advocate, of the law courts of the five kingdoms of Éireann, proficient to the degree of anruth, the second highest qualification in the land. Her rank therefore allowed her not only to plead cases before  judges but, when nominated, to hear and adjudicate in her own court on a range of applications that did not require the presence of a judge of higher rank. It was a task that Brehon Baithen, the senior judge of the kingdom of Muman, often requested her to perform. It was also a task that she liked least.
Muman is Munster – Tremayne generally uses Old Irish placenames and words and it must be admitted that it can at times be difficult to maintain the flow of reading, when you trip up on unfamiliar and unpronounceable names on almost every page. My approach is to try to make an approximation to the most frequent words and names and to give up entirely on the rest, since Irish remains impenetrable even if you are armed with the basic rules – letters are modified by others depending on their placement. Irish may only have 18 letters, but they are used in very versatile ways! My own starting point is Scottish Gaelic, of which I have an exceedingly sketchy knowledge, and occasionally there is a glimmer of light when I carefully sound out a word and discover that it’s recognisably a version of a modern placename. Dálaigh is one of the few words I can pronounce – daw-lee – and after some thought, I realised (and confirmed with a bit of searching) that the alarming looking Mhaoldomhnaigh is anglicised as Muldowney.

Sister Fidelma is a religieuse (the author’s preferred description – nun is misleading, he says, and Fidelma is a religious in the same way that most members of the professional classes in Ireland had previously been Druids). By this point in the series she is also married and a mother, a not unusual situation at the time – it wasn’t until 1139 that the Second Lateran Council outlawed marriage for clergy in the Roman Church, and Celtic Christianity was in any case more liberal. Tremayne’s feeling for the difference between the two provides him with a strong thematic element throughout the series, and he insists that there is nothing anachronistic nor inconsistent with Brehon law in his books.

In Dancing with Demons the High King has been found murdered in his bed (this is documented, circa AD670); his killer, discovered apparently in flagrante, turns his weapon upon himself and dies. As Tremayne says in his short preface, not so much who-dunnit, as why. Fidelma is called on as a neutral investigator, and her method is essentially that of interview and deduction although, since this might become a little dry, we are permitted the 7th century equivalent of a car chase towards the end (did you know, by the way, that the Latin carrum, which gives us car, comes from the Gaulish karros, a Celtic two-wheeled war chariot? in this case, a nicely circular association, I think!)  Her husband makes a very satisfactory Watson for her investigations – as a Saxon he is unfamiliar with aspects of both society and language, so things have to be explained to him from time to time. He does, however, bring his own skills to the pursuit, and his unofficial status occasionally comes into its own. His Romanicised Christianity helps to keep religious tensions in play, not least when the old religion of the Druids may also be a factor in the assassination. The interplay between the three belief systems helps to remind us that Christianity is still relatively new to a Celtic world which has a long and rich history, providing a very welcome perspective on a period long dismissed as the Dark Ages (modern terminology has largely moved away from this crude characterisation of history, but I think it still remains in the popular conception of the period).

I don't consider that it matters if you read the series out of order, although there are plot elements that might benefit from being read in sequence, and events from previous books are referred to in the text (and footnoted). The historical past – from the characters' viewpoint, so that it encompasses Irish mythology – is explained, while historical research is dropped in with a light touch. The books are sometimes a little slow to get going, but a little patience is rewarded, and despite a plethora of unfamiliar names, characters are clearly distinguishable - in case you need it, though, there is a dramatis personae at the start. That list could certainly be improved by a phonetic guide to pronunciation, and personally, I think a map* never comes amiss, but I know that's a contentious area, and that there are some browsers who will instantly put a book back on the shelf if they find one.

* As I was fine-tuning this post, I discovered that there is an extensive website devoted to the series, with masses of information about books, characters, a lengthy discussion of the question of clerical marriage, some information on pronunciation (though I still think that my suggestion is better!)


  1. I will look for this series! I love historical mysteries!

  2. I love books set in this sort of period and this sounds fascinating.
    I'm with you on the need for a map and guide to old names - I'm familiar with the geography of Ireland in general (my late father was a Clare man and I spent long summer holidays there and in Kerry when I was a child) but I think that I would find it frustrating to not be able to place things properly. Comes from being a journalist I suppose!

  3. Jenclair, lots of good reading here!

    LizF, glad you agree on maps - while reading Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth I had a print-out of Roman placenames, so that I could place everywhere on a mental map.