“Absolution by Murder” by Peter Tremayne

This was originally scheduled for last week, aka my birthday. But… I didn’t want to post a less-than-positive review on my birthday. It just felt like a bad vibe, like I’d be cursing myself to only read mediocre books for the rest of my time being 22, you know? So I rescheduled it.

As you may have guessed, this is a kind of negative review, but I feel okay about writing it because (a) this book was published in 1994 so my review will have little impact on its commercial success and (b) there are a ton of books in the series so I doubt the author will care about one review, and thus I’m unlikely to hurt his feelings.

absolution by murder

Some context: I picked this up in Oxfam because the title reminded me of one of my characters (hey, he makes poor life choices) and when I saw that it was a mystery set around the Synod of Whitby, I felt I couldn’t *not* buy it, as a student of the early medieval period. I mean, it was more a case of thinking it might be laugh rather than expecting it to be a literary masterpiece, but at least that meant my expectations weren’t too high.

I was also amused when, upon learning that Peter Tremayne was a pseudonym, I joked, “I’ll laugh if it’s Peter Berresford Ellis,” and then Googled it and found that it was. I’ve read some of his non-fiction history books — my conclusion generally is that he’s not quite academically rigorous enough to believe everything he says and he tends to take a somewhat romanticised view of medieval Ireland, particularly where women are concerned. This isn’t always a bad thing; it can make a change when everything else you’ve read has been misogynistic as anything. But I wouldn’t recommend him as a sole source for medieval history (as he was for me when I first read his work back in sixth form) because he’s definitely not always right.

This book does read like it was written by someone who is a historian first and a novelist second. Now, apparently there are like 25+ of these books, so maybe he’s settled into the novelist role, but… well, frankly, the writing style is weak, especially where emotions are concerned. A character will feel an emotion. This emotion will be named, and then they will ponder why they are feeling it, and come to a conclusion. At no point is the reader left to deduce anything about these feelings from the character’s behaviour or thoughts. In other words, there’s a lot of telling, and very little showing.

The same goes for the descriptions — “her clothes showed that she was of high rank” but we don’t see what that means, or, “her expression told them she was amused” but with no description of what that actually entails. It’s like Tremayne doesn’t trust his readers to make any leaps at all, and it gets tiring very quickly.

The telling-not-showing reaches new heights with the first brief spark of an Unnecessary Straight Romance (which, admittedly, didn’t get very far in this book, but I accidentally got spoiled by Wikipedia so I know they get married later), as we’re told, “It was a moment of pure chemistry.” You know, just straight up told that, with no actual emotional evidence to support this statement. Sorry, mate, I’m not seeing a whole lot of chemistry there. “Some empathy passed from the dark brown eyes of the man into Fidelma’s green ones.” What does THAT even mean? It was supposed to be a meet-cute of some sort, but it wasn’t all that convincing.

Oh, and also, the early descriptions of Fidelma were all really weird. Like, I know it’s set in the days before most monasteries cared about celibacy and stuff, but it still feels weird to read a description of a nun’s “well-proportioned” figure, a fact which is apparently not concealed by her habit, because of course not. And there are two almost identical descriptions of how Fidelma’s eyes are sometimes green and sometimes blue, depending on her feelings (because of course), which just felt redundant as well as a bit ridiculous.

Conclusion, then: I did not like the writing style. It was clumsy and felt like it needed a good, solid edit.

The exposition was likewise fairly blunt. Tremayne knows a ton about history, and he wants you to know all of it, through dialogue if preferable. We need to know everyone’s names. The political and religious ramifications of every event must be discussed in detail. And, like, these details were probably a strength of the book. It certainly helped me understand the Synod of Whitby better, and I’m sure it was largely accurate. My knowledge up until now has basically been that they were arguing over the date of Easter, but Tremayne points out a lot of other smaller doctrinal issues — tonsure and blessings and so on — that were also at stake.

But while the novel helped to bring the details to life in a way that no textbook ever quite succeeded at doing, it still definitely felt at times like a history book with story thrown in rather than the other way around, and the writing style didn’t help with that mood.

As for the plot, well, I was actually fairly impressed. I was correct in my suspicions about who the murderer was, but it took me a little while to get there, and I can imagine a lot of people wouldn’t have done. I don’t want to spoil it, but it was one of those cases where you’re well-served if your approach to books is to assume any character is queer given the slightest provocation, which I did with this, and was rewarded for it. Those who don’t take that approach might’ve taken longer to join the dots.

However, I would definitely have enjoyed the mystery aspect more if it had been better written; that was a major letdown, and made it a lot harder to enjoy the book. I’ve read books with good narration but poor dialogue, or with poor narration but good dialogue, and in either case one can usually make up for the other, but with this, the weaknesses of style affected it all, and undermined my enjoyment a lot.

So, this is not turning out to be a hugely positive review. Was this book fun? Yes, but mainly because I stopped taking it seriously and started making fun of it before getting too far through. Will I read any of the others in the series? I might read the next two, because I happen to own them (I bought a boxed set), but I’m unlikely to seek the others out unless these two show drastic improvement.

Probably a 2.5* read, but I’m rounding it down because of the Unnecessary Straight Meet-Cute scene, tbh.

Rating: **

Buy ‘Absolution by Murder’ on Amazon (UK)
Buy ‘Absolution by Murder’ on Amazon (US)

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