Book review — Legal eagle: A mystery of ancient Ireland

A version of this book review appeared on the Ladies’ Home Journal website, lhj.com.

Dateline: Éireann, 669 A.D. — The Irish High King has been murdered in his bed in Tara, and the country is on the brink of civil war. Partisans of a perverted offshoot of the Druidic Old Faith roam the countryside, attacking Christian, or New Faith, churches and monasteries. Will seventh-century Irish sleuth Fidelma of Cashel discover what has precipitated this reign of terror?

Author Peter Tremayne is in top form in Dancing with Demons: A Mystery of Ancient Ireland (St. Martin’s Minotaur; October 2008), the latest of his whodunits Fidelma to arrive in the United States. Readers will easily spot Dancing with Demons in Barnes & Noble stores countrywide, where it will be shown in special displays along with the new softcover version of Tremayne’s preceding work, The Prayer for the Damned (St. Martin’s Minotaur; paperback, October, 2008).

The Fidelma series features rich evocations of Irish history and legend, which means the books edify as much as they thrill. Based on an historical figure, Tremayne’s lead character is a complicated woman: She’s both a serious, high-minded religieuse of the New Faith and a beautiful, temperamental princess of Cashel, one the five ancient Irish provinces. Think Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, rolled into one.

However, it’s Fidelma’s training as a dáleigh, or lawyer-magistrate, that propels her around Éireann to solve murders, kidnappings and other treacheries. Tremayne (the mystery-writing pen name of leading Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis) vividly describes her galloping across the rugged countryside of southwestern Ireland, nabbing villains with the help of Brother Eadulf, a Saxon monk. In earlier books in the series, Eadulf is her fiancé; in this one, they are married.

In case you were wondering, the stories take place about three centuries before the Catholic Church enforced celibacy rules for clerics, as well as during Ireland’s golden age, when women had more rights than they do in many developed countries nowadays. Irish women of that era could readily pursue any career — including that of ruler, warrior, apothecary or artist — and were protected by rigorously enforced laws ensuring their rights to property, freedom from physical assault and more.

In Dancing with Demons, the nobles of the Great Assembly have called Fidelma to Tara to discover why the High King’s life was taken. The killer has been caught, but the lords want the island’s most famous detective to probe further and determine whether the terrible event was the result of a wide-ranging plot that may plunge the island into all-out warfare.

In the climactic scene, when Fidelma reveals the truth to the assembly, she foregoes the simple garb of a religieuse that she usually favors. Instead, she dominates the gathering in an outfit Diana might have worn for a walk down the red carpet: a gold-embroidered deep-blue gown accessorized with bejeweled sandals, a gold torc (a twisted-metal necklace worn by Celtic warriors) and, for her bright red hair, a silver circlet set with emeralds.

Her summation is just as brilliant and encompasses a dazzling analysis of the evidence, shocking courtroom confessions, amazing exonerations and, in the end, the assurance that Éireann will be at peace once more.

c. Stephanie Woodard.