Throughout History: My Pet Mystery Series

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The occasion of finishing “The Dove of Death” by Peter Tremayne makes a perfect time to review three detective series I have enjoyed over the years, but have not included here. An ancient setting recurs through these three series, which is a complete coincidence, a thing that evolved from simple preferences. Let’s start with the series the entry from which I finished just today. Each has its devoted followers (this is not a discovery piece, this is an appreciation).

Sister Fidelma, by Peter Tremayne

Set in Ireland in the seventh century CE, this series features a youngish nun who exercises the powers of a duly appointed investigating officer and advocate in the Five Kingdoms on the Island of Hibernia. Tremayne, real name Peter Berresford Ellis, studies English and Irish history professionally, and builds his rewarding stories around the customs and conflicts of the time, which to me is a wonderful extra spice in these pieces. His scholarship shows in such themes as the spread of orthodoxy of the Roman Church. Many professionals, particularly in the legal system, joined the Church as a way of pursuing their careers without interference, and Fidelma is no exception. You will not read of her in any sort of cloister or silent meditation; she does in fact marry a Saxon monk and have a son. However, a series of focused and fervent churchmen work tirelessly at spreading the celibate orthodoxy espoused by Rome. This doctrine is very slow to take hold in ancient Ireland.

The books stand very well as mysteries, and Fidelma is a memorable, intrepid character. These mysteries keep you guessing, often until the last dozen or so pages. Fidelma always guards her secrets well; often there is a reason she can’t even tell her husband Eadulf whodunit, because it could endanger him. One or two quibbles on these. The writing, particularly during conversation, can run a tiny bit stilted, as though Mr. Tremayne does not want his characters to sound vernacular or familiar. And he finds it too frequently necessary for Fidelma to cop an attitude about what she does, often putting a stuffy or prejudiced official in his or her place. Small quibbles, no doubt. A very worthwhile series, I have thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Roma sub rosa, by Steven Saylor

Beginning late in the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, (d. 78 BCE) and extending through the collapse of Republican Rome and the establishment of the Empire, Gordianus the Finder finds murderers, thieves, conspirators, and more in a series of superb-down-to-the-details mysteries set in ancient Rome. Highlights in this series include intimate fictional portraits of Cicero, the famed advocate and statesman of Rome (for whom Gordianus does a series of tasks, sometimes grudgingly), and the cunning, charming, and ruthless Julius Caesar. The principal attraction of this series lies in the engrossing verisimilitude of Rome at its height. The sights, smells, commotion, attitudes, backroom political ruthlessness, and religious traditions all flow from the extensive knowledge of Mr. Saylor, who, like me, remains entranced by all things ancient Rome.

Gordianus must navigate his way through the shark-infested waters of Roman power politics. He must find murderers and unearth conspiracies, freeing his slave and marrying her along the way. In his life he must balance the interests of the state, his clients, and his personal life, and he does it all with a rigid personal moral sense. Much of the brutality of the time leaves him aghast, but he doesn’t question slavery, or the preeminence of his homeland in the world. The rogue’s gallery in this series is a highly entertaining one, whether it involves historical characters or the anonymous gladiator/thug. This series remains a prized favorite.

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Brother Cadfael, by Ellis Peters

Portrayed through 22 novels published between 1977 and 1995, and brought to the small screen in a terrific BBC series with the divine Derek Jacobi in the title role, Brother Cadfeal ranks as one of the best-loved and most-followed detectives in all of mystery literature. These novels feature the eponymous Benedictine monk, who serves his abbot and neighboring nobles by investigating murders and other crimes. This series shares with the Gordianus novels a highly charged political backdrop, which allows for all kinds of machination and skullduggery. Cadfael’s time encompasses the civil war that raged in England in the 1130s and 1140s, between adherents to two contenders for the throne, Empress Maud and King Stephen.

Edith Pargeter, self-taught scholar and translator, published well-researched fiction and non-fiction after World War II. Under the name Ellis Peters, she published her first Brother Cadfael book, “A Morbid Taste for Bones,” in 1977, beating by three years Umberto Eco’s very well-received “The Name of the Rose,” a novel that famously deals with similar material. In her Cadfael series, Peters maintained an excellence in her plots and in her renderings of a far-off world. Her mysteries contain anything and everything the reader hopes for in this genre: distinctive sets of suspects, games of high-stakes political shenanigans, plenty of physical danger for our hero and other virtuous souls, and plenty of surprise twists and gratifying endings. There are a lot of reasons for Cadfael’s popularity, and I’m sure it will endure for generations.

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