664AD has to be the earliest-set detective story I’ve read so far. Absolution by Murder is set during the Synod of Whitby, where religious delegates from the rival Christian factions of Rome and Iona met to decide the future of the kingdom of Northumbria. When a visiting Irish abbess is discovered in her room with her throat cut, Sister Fidelma, an Irish religieuse qualified to investigate legal matters in her own country, is asked to find the killer. Alongside a Saxon Brother, Eadulf, she races to uncover the murderer before rumours between the two factions spark a civil war.
Initially I found this novel difficult to get into, as the beginning is extremely heavy on early medieval religious history and politics, and the unfamiliar Saxon names also made it easy for me to mix up some of the characters. Once the action had really started, however, it became much more enjoyable.
Sister Fidelma is a refreshingly strong, forthright female detective, not taking sidekick position to her male counterpart, and refusing to defer to the expectations of the men she interacts with. Apparently this sexual equality is historically accurate, which makes a pleasant change to modern values being copied and pasted onto historical situations.
Overall, rather a slow start, but bear with it and it’s definitely worth it – enjoyable and intriguing reading, with plenty of historical ambiance.
Next up: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley