The Chalice of Blood by Peter Tremayne
“Jumping Jehoshaphat!” I muttered to myself from time to time as I was reading this book. Well, actually that’s not strictly true, but I keep this review site family friendly. So [expletive deleted], not more facts!?! Which is a strange thing to say when reading an historical novel, but I felt I was being bombarded with information and not in a good way. Indeed, given the homicidal intentions implicit in military bombardments, it’s hard to think kindly of an author bombarding his readers with anything, let alone facts. So here’s the issue for the bully pulpit this time around. If a book is clearly labelled as “historical”, can you have too much history? Well, let me take a moment to look back on a long life. My two grandmothers were born in Victorian times (following the tradition of spiders, my grandfathers had, of course, been eaten shortly after the mating) so, when at their knees, I was bombarded (the word for the day) with stories of what it was like when they were young. So I come to my present advanced age with an oral history spanning well over one-hundred years. The facts I take for granted would have to be explained to most of you. For an author, this creates a major problem. If the intention is to set the story during the last one-hundred years, a slice of the readership will be familiar with the contexts but younger readers will not. From a personal point of view, if this is a book set outside Britain, I will often be lost because, apart from holiday trips, that’s outside my experience. So the author is continuously having to decide how much to explain. For what it’s worth, I prefer the minimum amount of background necessary to support the smooth development of the plot.
Now let’s cut to the chase. In The Chalice of Blood (Minotaur Books, 2011), Peter Tremayne continues the Sister Fidelma series set in seventh century Ireland (this is volume 19/20). Obviously, that’s way outside the limits of oral history and a completely different culture. So how much should be updated and what should be explained? Let’s start with measurements. Although the Roman Empire had acted as a kind of European Union and standardised many aspects of life (including the provision of Latin as a common denominator language to allow people to talk with each other), the Romans did not decree the adoption of the metric system. They relied on the pes or “foot” to measure length. Distance had a military overtone with what we would now call a mile being mille passuum, a thousand paces by an average solider on a route march (sorry, I was a classical scholar). It’s therefore disconcerting to see an author set a book in 670 AD and talk about metres for length and kilometres for distance. This is made all the worse because the edition I’m reading is intended for the US market which has not yet succumbed to the metric system.
Anyway, putting this trivial point to one side, we can’t pass a river or a crossroads without someone volunteering a little local history to explain the name or why local people either fight over it or shun it. More importantly, Sister Fidelma is an Irish jurist. Not only does she investigate crimes and arbitrate in disputes between tribes, she’s also responsible for presenting cases before an appropriately convened court. So we lack cultural reference points and need a fairly detailed explanation of local laws before we can understand who might have committed any given offence. We also need to know the procedures and what will be treated as sufficient evidence to prove guilt. That’s why there’s a fair amount of technical material to get through to raise us up to the point where we can make sense of it all. It also reflects on the extensive research effort put in by Tremayne and then considerable technical expertise to manipulate the plot to bring all this information into play. While I’m not averse to learning about different cultural systems including their laws, there’s actually quite a lot to remember if you’re going to do “justice” to the plot. So, if you’re one of these people who prefers a more superficial approach, this book is not for you.
Now on to the plot itself. It starts off as a locked room murder mystery although, anyone with any experience in reading detective novels will almost immediately understand how it was done. This leaves the rest of the book for us to identify the motive for the murder. Only when we understand the why can we narrow down the field and see who must have done it. It’s at this point we come to another possible stumbling block for some readers. As an atheist, I’m unmoved by people discussing heresies. This murder is set in an abbey of the Celtic Church. During the course of the seventh century, there was considerable debate about the detail of the faith and a number of different groups arose who were committed to different sets of belief. There was also dissension on the role of Rome to impose discipline on the theory and practice of Christian worship. So if you’re sensitive on this type of content, you should pass by on the other side.
This leaves a hard core of people who will enjoy this detailed account of two deaths and various wrongdoing. At a factual level, it plays completely fair with all the most important clues in plain sight. More importantly, I was fascinated by the way the law apparently worked back then. Hoping not to sound patronising, it’s actually very sophisticated and, although we might disapprove of some aspects of the results on display here, it would make perfect sense in the historical context. So there you have it. The Chalice of Blood is another step in the life of Sister Fidelma and her sidekick husband (yes, the Church did permit those who had taken Holy Orders to marry). This is very good historical mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.