A Prayer for the Damned is the 17th book in Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series of murder mystery novels set in 7th century Ireland. In this story, an abbot is killed on the eve of Fidelma’s wedding to Eadulf. The murder has significant political repercussions, that could in the worst case lead to Fidelma’s brother, Colgu, losing his kingship.
As a murder mystery, this book works quite well. It is not until about 50 pages from the end that we see a slip-up by the murderer that will eventually lead to Fidelma solving the mystery.
On other levels, though, this novel doesn’t work so well. Tremayne has a tendency to pedantry. He is long-winded. His dialogue is stilted and verbose. He tells good stories in the worst possible way. I found myself longing to be done with this book before I was half through it. I don’t know if it was more pedantic than the preceding books in the series or if I am just less tolerant of it now.
To Tremayne’s credit, he makes an honest effort to convey the political and social conditions of the time and place. Irish tradition was battling Roman Catholicism for political and religious control. Ireland was, by comparison with Roman-dominated Europe, more tolerant and ‘liberal’, offering better treatment of women and of the elderly. The Irish justice system was based on compensation rather than punishment. Ireland seems not to have the neurotic obsession with punishment, chastisement, and guilt that characterized (and still characterizes) Roman-based Christianity.
Of course, Tremayne writes from the point of view of the ruling class - Fidelma is sister to a king, and the sort of life she is described as leading would have been unknown to the great majority of Irish people of the time. The ‘honor system’ of compensation described so favorably by Tremayne enforced a strict hereditary hierarchy differing from other European feudalist structures only in that the hierarchy did not rely on primogeniture.
Already in the 7th century Ireland was beginning to be dominated by religion, with bishops rivaling kings for power and influence. Ireland was on its way to the Christian theocracy that eventually dominated Ireland and all of Europe. The liberalizing influence of Irish law and tradition eventually was discarded, leading to 6 centuries of intellectual stagnation and horrible cruelty.