Absolution by Murder

I spent yesterday afternoon someplace I’ve not been since college–the laundromat. The dryer at home decided about a week ago that it didn’t want to work anymore, but the laundry still needs to get done, and so a laundromat it was. Anyone who has spent time doing their laundry at a laundromat knows that you need something to do, something to keep yourself occupied. I took Peter Tremayne’s Absolution by Murder with me.

To recap, Absolution by Murder is the February book for the mystery book club at the Barnes & Noble near work. I’d read the book a few years ago, before I moved to North Carolina, and decided to read it again so as to participate in the mystery book club on the last Monday of the month. I’d read about half the book over the past few days, and with a hundred and fifty pages to go and laundry to wait out yesterday seemed the best time to finish the book.

After I finished Absolution by Murder I remembered why, other than the short story collection Hemlock at Vespers, I hadn’t continued with Tremayne’s mystery series about a seventh-century Irish nun named Sister Fidelma. As a piece of historical fiction the novel was fine, even educational. As a mystery Absolution was a little underwhelming.

I would call Absolution by Murder a procedural mystery, albeit one set in the seventh-century. Murder happens, character investigates it, and we’re with the investigation every step of the way. Unfortunately, that’s the novel’s problem–every moment the novel spends in the interrogation of various suspects or the analysis of the crime scene, the uniqueness of the setting and the characters vanishes. There’s nothing about the mystery that intrinsically requires the novel’s setting or characters. And that’s a big reason why I didn’t stick with the series.

The other reason was the characterization. Basically, I didn’t think the characters were drawn very well. Fidelma is cold, stern, a bit dour. Her partner in the investigation, the Saxon Brother Eadulf, remains pretty much a cypher from the first page to the last. If the two main characters are flat and uninvolving, that’s a major barrier to wanting to spend time with them in later books.

What about the mystery itself? Does Absolution by Murder work as a mystery. It does, sort of. I’ll have to take another look at the book, re-read a few chapters, but I think that, overall, Tremayne plays fair. The evidence Fidelma uses to reach her conclusions on the theory of the crime was present in the narrative, though it wasn’t always interpreted at the time or drawn attention to in a manner that would have led to the final conclusion. The one hitch is that the perpetrator, though present in the story, is really a minor character and about the last person the reader would expect.

So, I would call Absolution by Murder an average mystery. It focuses of the procedure of solving the crime, which is far from my favorite mystery style, and it plays fair, though fast, with the mystery conventions.

All of that said, yesterday after finishing the book I stopped at four bookstores (a Borders and three Barnes & Nobles) looking for the next book in the series, Shroud for the Archbishop. No luck turning one up. And if that isn’t a point in Tremayne’s favor, I don’t know what is.

Originally published here.