Thursday, October 09, 2014

Philip Freeman's Saint Brigid's Bones, an appealing mystery of early Ireland

It wasn’t a matter of who could have gotten into the chest – everyone had access to the church day and night – but who would dare to do such a terrible thing. To steal the bones of Brigid was an unthinkable blasphemy.

With his accessible debut set in historical Ireland and featuring a determined female detective, Philip Freeman joins the company of longtime mystery writers Peter Tremayne and Cora Harrison. Saint Brigid’s Bones takes place even further back in the past than their works, though, at a time when Christianity had just established a foothold.

In 6th-century Kildare, ten years after the death of the woman who will become one of Ireland’s patron saints, the monastery she founded is in an uproar.

Brigid’s bones have vanished from the chest where they’re kept, and if the relics aren’t found by her holy day in February, three months away, visits from pilgrims will dwindle, and the community will lose critical food and income. Their newly built church at Sleaty was just destroyed in an accidental fire, which compounds their financial woes.

The redoubtable abbess, Sister Anna, asks young Sister Deirdre to take charge of the investigation, even though some people blame her for the fire at Sleaty (Deirdre had fallen asleep while praying with a candle burning at the altar). With her status as an Irish noblewoman of Druid heritage and her education as a professional bard, she has connections the others lack. The many suspects of the crime include the abbot of a competing monastery, which has much stricter rules for nuns, and the greedy sons of King Dúnlaing, who covet Kildare’s land.

This novel would be an excellent choice for newcomers to historical mysteries or to its early Irish setting. There is some exposition masked as dialogue in the very beginning, but Sister Deirdre has a friendly narrative voice that guides readers over the hills of the picturesque countryside and into the homes of its residents as she conducts her inquiry. With its achievements in literacy, music, and medicine, her Kildare seems a very enlightened place – but also a religiously diverse one where shocking pagan rites still occur.

Despite all her training, Sister Deirdre has the tendency to throw herself unnecessarily into danger, and her invented background, which draws in many aspects of Irish society at the time, feels a little too convenient. She and her best friend Sister Dari make for a good team, though, and revelations about her personal history make her an even more intriguing character. The author holds a Ph.D. in Classics and Celtic Studies, and his new series – featuring many real-life figures and grounded in the complex history of its times – is off to a promising start.

Saint Brigid’s Bones will be published by Pegasus in hardcover next week ($24.95, 224pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

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