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"Chalice of Blood" by Peter Tremayne

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Elsewhere I have extolled the Sister Fidelma mystery series, which Peter Tremayne has set in ancient Ireland. It provides an educated glimpse into an exotic time and place, Ireland in the AD 600s, a place with a more advanced and enlightened (to 21st century sensibilities) social and legal system than any country near it, and maybe beyond. Mr. Tremayne has invented a nun in her mid-to-late 20s, who serves as a dálaigh (pronounced ‘dawley’), or court prosecutor, and who roves the Five Kingdoms of Ireland tackling conundrums and bringing miscreants to justice. 

One bewitching surprise is that Fidelma is married and has a young son. She has taken Eadulf, a Saxon monk (with his endearing ‘everyman’ quality) as her husband, as the Church has not fully adopted the Roman edict of celibacy. Far from it. And herein lies one of the chief charms of the series: we get a historian’s (whose real name is Peter Berresford Ellis) best attempt to find the tenor of a very fluid time in Church history, and he captures the tension created when encroaching Roman orthodoxy inexorably supplants ancient native traditions. This is a theme in all the entries of this series, but Mr. Tremayne turns it up a couple of notches for “Chalice of Blood,” and this qualitative change is why I’m giving this book space of its own.

The murder victim in this story, a scholarly monk, has returned from his researches in the Holy Land in a state of crisis. He has reviewed documents that shake his faith, and knows that in following his conscience he will risk censure and excommunication as a heretic, and thus bring disgrace to his abbey. So here the author lets the historian in him come to the fore – praise be! – and we get chapter and verse on major treatises in the debate. A second-century Greek philosopher, Celsus, challenged what he thought was the unfounded Christian view of humans as resembling God. After all, why shouldn’t God, if it had taken the absurd step of manifesting itself on Earth, have assumed the form on an insect, bird, or horse? He also takes to task the Hebrew tradition that they are the chosen people, finding it egocentric and preposterous. His texts do not survive, but were taken seriously enough that the pre-Nicene Church Father, Origen, felt compelled to take him on and aver the Church position, point-by-point.  It is from Origen that we know Celsus. Mr. Tremayne has turned a lovely trick and served his readers superbly with this plot device.

So here we have, in addition to well-plotted and -paced mystery, a tantalizing hint of the sweeping nature of the early Christian debate, and some of the work that comprised it. “Chalice of Blood” delivers, very gratifyingly, on every promise.

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