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The Monk Who Vanished: A Mystery of Ancient Ireland    by Peter Tremayne order for
Monk Who Vanished
by Peter Tremayne
Order:  USA  Can
Signet, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Sister Fidelma, star of these ancient Ireland mysteries, is arguably the earliest fictional female sleuth. Celtic expert Peter Tremayne has created a series that can be enjoyed on many levels. Well researched, it accurately represents the difficult and dangerous times in mid-7th century Ireland when the country was divided into five provincial powers. The political and religious rivalries, among kingdoms all vying for supreme control, remind one of modern Yugoslavia.

Set against this turbulent background, Tremayne presents Sister Fidelma, a nun who is also a dalaigh or advocate of the ancient law courts. Fidelma is thirty years old and the sister of Colgu, the King of Cashel, the capital of Muman (modern day Munster), one of the five kingdoms. This was a perhaps surprisingly good period for women's rights and Fidelma has many powers due to her legal position. She has also been trained in martial arts, which she uses to good effect to disarm a threatening opponent.

The Monk Who Vanished is the 7th Sister Fidelma book and takes place in 666 AD. Fidelma has recently returned to Cashel and her brother's castle, accompanied by the Saxon monk Brother Eadulf who has been her partner in previous adventures. The stage is set for a peace treaty with the neighboring kingdom of the Ui Fidgente, with whom Muman fought a bloody war the previous year. However, just as Colgu and Donennach, the Prince of the Ui Fidgente, enter the castle at Cashel there is an assassination attempt. Fortunately neither man is seriously injured. But early evidence points to Colgu as the culprit.

Unlike modern times, ancient Irish law presumed one guilty until proven innocent, and it is up to Fidelma to clear her brother's name so that he can retain his kingdom. When one of the assassins, conveniently quickly slain by Ui Fidgente soldiers before they can be questioned, is linked to the Abbey of Imleach, Fidelma journeys there to look into the mystery. She discovers that a monk has just vanished along with priceless ancient relics of Muman.

The book is somewhat intimidating, as is any requiring a historical preface plus cast of characters. The ancient Irish names are unfamiliar; as the Saxon Eadulf says, 'these names are beyond me'. He also echoes the reader's sentiments when, after Fidelma tries to explain the complex relationships between the kingdoms and how rulership is passed down, he says 'my simple brain has taken in enough genealogy and too many names'.

Tremayne has vividly portrayed ancient Ireland and one can easily visualize the landscape and the realities of everyday life for both rich and poor. The reader is also very aware of the turmoil of times when church and secular politics were intertwined. Although the rival kingdoms are not more than a day or two away by horse, they are often bitter enemies. Conflicts exist within kingdoms as well, and as one character says 'unity is not cemented by blood', and it is never clear who can be trusted.

Fidelma and Eadulf are a good team and eventually solve the mystery. We hope they will continue their partnership in future episodes. The tale's ending hints at a more permanent relationship, since this was a time when members of the religious could marry. However, Tremayne is keeping us in suspense until the next book.

The Monk Who Vanished is a rewarding read, especially for historical mystery buffs. However, it does require persistence to keep the events and characters straight. As the recent Death of a Red Heroine shows, this can be done skillfully, even when events are set in foreign places with unfamiliar names. Tremayne does not do as good a job as Qiu Xiaolong in keeping the reader from being confused; however the book is still very well worth the read, especially for the portrait of the times and the feminist Fidelma.

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