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The Subtle Serpent (Sister Fidelma #4)

4.02 of 5 stars 4.02  ·  rating details  ·  1,016 ratings  ·  42 reviews
In the fourth book in this acclaimed Irish medieval mystery series, Sister Fidelma investigates a murder at a remote abbey, only to encounter the strange disappearance of a ship and its entire crew.
Paperback, 320 pages
Published October 2nd 1999 by Signet (first published January 1st 1996)
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Peter Tremayne doesn’t play fair in The Subtle Serpent, the fourth installment in the Sister Fidelma series. In Agatha Christie fashion, he doesn’t introduce important potential suspects until late in the game and ultimately fails in communicating the motive for the killing. Yes, he spells out the murderer’s (multiple murders in this one even as there are multiple mysteries to be solved) motive, but the murderer would have been well able to make the same assumption that Sister Fidelma makes at t ...more
As with the first three books, I enjoyed this one generally. I like Fidelma. I like that she's not perfect, but sometimes she's bossy and arrogant and too quick to judge. I love the Celtic and religious history -- both are interesting topics to me. I liked the setting -- the nest of vipers this particular book had at it's heart. Everyone seemed like a possible murderer so I was kept guessing (although this particular murderer turned out to be pretty off the scales grotesque, especially when you ...more
Nancy Ellis
I love the Sister Fidelma books! They're full of history, interesting people, and great stories. This one is especially good, with Sister Fi sent to a distant abbey to solve the case of the headless corpse found in the well. There are several underlying plots full of evil and nasty people, and it is not clear at first whether the murder is related to the rebellion being planned by the local chieftain against Fidelma's brother, the king of Cashel. As always, Fidelma's brilliance comes through and ...more
Simon Mcleish
Originally published on my blog here in November 1998.

By the fourth of Tremayne's Sister Fidelma novels, she is well-established in the affections of fans. Having a female detective in a medieval crime novel is rather unusual, given the general attitude to women in the period. Fidelma is hardly a normal woman, being a king's sister, a nun, and a highly trained advocate in the Irish courts. Although Tremayne continually emphasises the humanity of traditional Irish law - particularly as a contrast
Joyce Lagow
4th in the Sister Fidelma series.[return][return]Fidelma is summoned to the abbey of The Salmon of the Three Wells when the corpse of a headless female is found in the abbey s well. While on her way to the abbey by ship, Fidelma and her companions encounter a merchant ship that is completely empty of crew AND cargo. All that is left is puzzling traces of reddish earth. In addition, Fidelma discovers evidence that one of the passengers was her former investigative colleague, Brother Eadulf. Not o ...more
Emmy Kuipers
Summer reading: light, easy, entertaining. I love cross-genre mysteries. This one takes place in the enlightened Irish Kingdoms from the early middle ages when Christianity had not erased all traces of the old Celtic beliefs and women were not the second-class citizens they would become in Roman Christianity. Sometimes civilization makes no progress but slides backwards.
First I will say that this is my favorite type of book, fictional detective set in an "interesting" point in time. Next best thing to a time machine. I liked the book, but did notice that it took me longer than usual to read it. This was due to quite a bit of "new to me" words, history and geography to absorb. There was a map, but I wish there had been a glossary. (Guess that would be a reason to quit holding out against an e-reader.) I sometimes had to go back and reread and try harder to under ...more
Cyn Mcdonald
Still too much history lecture, and the conflict between the Irish church and Rome is both annoying and intrusive, no matter how much it might have affected the lives of the religieux of the time. Besides, I prefer detectives who don't keep the critical clue secret until the end.
Bonnijean Marley
Take a likable protagonist who is good at solving mysteries, throw in a couple of mysteries to solve, together with some political intrigue and set it in 7th century Ireland and you've got an interesting read.

Tremayne has a PhD in Celtic studies with an emphasis in law, so his novels are heavy on the history and legal detail. I like that about these books, but some find them too dense.

This story is set in an abbey and involves law, politics and pagan worship. Fidelma must find out who killed a young girl whose headless body is found in the abbey's well.

I'm bothered by the implications of lesbian relationships. He did that in his first novel in this series. I think conflating homosexuality with psych
Sister Fidelma is calledto the THE ABBEY OF THE SALMON OF THE THREE WELLS to investigate the murder of a young sister who was also decapitated . the young nuns body was found at the bottom of one of the wells.getting information on this murder was sister Fidelma's hardest assingment yet. There is somuch hatered between the abessof the abey and her brother who is king of the region that the abbey is located that is hard to figure truth from fiction. Sister Fidelma is led down a road of mystery a ...more
John Carter
I have since read the majority of this series. I love them, even when repetitive, it is still enjoyable.
Another great summer read..... Sister Fidelma unravels another murder.
TW: murder in some detail, kidnapping, flogging
Another in the Sister Fidelma series, which is pretty good but not brilliant. The story is fine but the character of Sister Fidelma is not growing or making any progress. Maybe she was just too perfect to begin with. Anyway, the books are not--I'm used to finding a few typos, but grammatical errors? ("It is me ...!" "I and Cass went [somewhere]") Anachronisms? Did people fudge details in ancient Ireland? Etc. Still, better than some series, but don't buy it--check it out of the library if you wa ...more
Sister Fidelma is sent by her cousin to an abbey where a headless woman was found in the well. She travels with the boatman who helped in the last book and they find an empty merchant ship floating offshore where upon investigating she finds Brother Eadulf's missal. Distracted from the outset Fidelma stumbles on yet another mystery while solving those two. It of course all comes right at the end and it was nice to see Fidelma do this mostly on her own with less pining than the last book.
Haven't read these in order, unfortunately. I find some contain more interesting historical info than others.
My only issue with them is that the author does not include a general pronunciation guide in each book. As someone interested in languages, this is very frustrating to me as I know the orthography is not WYSIWYG with Irish!
This one is interesting for the interplay of female personalities in a religious house, but I would not rate it as high as one or two of the others. Hence my rating.
Kristi Thompson
I like the concept. I like learning bits of Celtic lore and history while reading a light mystery. But I don't like being lectured. He's a poor writer, unfortunately. Dry, scholarly, at the wrong times, without any ability to integrate. He keeps stopping the narrative to give little lectures, which would be ok if he didn't have to repeat the lecture about what a rechtaire is every time he mentions one.
Kiran Spees
Tremayne's writing style is not the most refined I have encountered (his descriptions of landscapes could be improved, for one), but the plot and mystery is quite enjoyable, and the information on ancient Ireland is very interesting. This book was far creepier than the other mystery of his that I have read--perhaps I should not have read it right before bed. All told, a good mystery and a good read.
Enjoyed it in some ways, but was continually annoyed by the feeling that the entire volume exists solely as an excuse for the author to show off how much he knows about ancient Ireland. (Not a subtle feeling, either; rather like being clanged on the head repeatedly with a English/Celtic dictionary.) A good example of why a historical scholar maybe shouldn't be writing fiction set in his period.
Naomi Young
Well, the book was almost half-finished before the first evidence that the Roman Catholics were just sexist, depraved pervs compared to those wise, egalitarian Celtic Christians. So there's a record.

Strong principal characters, good puzzles, nice historical details vs. sermonizing and stereotyping of minor characters.

Classic Fidelma, the one heroine that plays a major role and is extremely intelligent. She puts together all the bits and pieces and unveils them at the end, as usual. Nothing terribly original, but the mystery is not easy to untangle, as the knots are complex. The ending is surprising and exciting, as Fidelma does it again.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Laura Edwards
Another excellent book in the series. I think Tremayne's writing is getting smoother as they go on. I really like the relationship between Sister Fidelma and Ross. He is like a sort of father or grandfather figure. I hope his character continues to pop up in other books.
As usual, I enjoyed this story. I could kind of guess some of the suspects but the conclusions of these books are always complex enough that there is a lot I do not guess. July 9--Ok, I revisited this again and am putting this back to three stars. I need to trust myself.
This is a great mystery! Set in ancient Ireland, Sister Fidelma, the main character, is the equivalent of a nun, though there are many differences from our modern nuns. Fidelma is intelligent and it was a pleasure to read. The historical background was also interesting.
Thank goodness Brother Eadulf is back in the story. I think Fidelma needs him to bounce ideas off of to make the mystery better.
This story was perhaps a bit much, as in there was too much going on but I hold out hope that the next book will be better.
Robyn Schmidt
I just started reading this series but have enjoyed it so much, I've read the 1st 5 books quickly. It has the charm of Brother Cadefael but the main character is more intellectually stimulating and the historical background is more interesting as well.
Mary Newcomb
Sister Fidelma is summoned to solve the murder of a headless corpse found in the well at the abbey of The Salmon of the Three Wells. By the time she is done with her presentation to the Brehon, so much more has been uncovered.

Once again Sister Fidelma solves an unsolvable mystery. When she explains it at the end, it sounds so logical. Through this series of books, I have learned so much about the seventh century of Ireland.
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Peter Berresford Ellis (born 10 March 1943) is a historian, literary biographer, and novelist who has published over 90 books to date either under his own name or his pseudonyms Peter Tremayne and Peter MacAlan. He has also published 95 short stories. His non-fiction books, articles and academic papers have made him acknowledged as an authority on Celtic history and culture. Under Peter Tremayne, ...more
More about Peter Tremayne...

Other Books in the Series

Sister Fidelma (1 - 10 of 26 books)
  • Absolution by Murder (Sister Fidelma, #1)
  • Shroud for the Archbishop (Sister Fidelma, #2)
  • Suffer Little Children (Sister Fidelma, #3)
  • The Spider's Web (Sister Fidelma, #5)
  • Valley of the Shadow (Sister Fidelma, #6)
  • The Monk Who Vanished (Sister Fidelma, #7)
  • Act of Mercy (Sister Fidelma, #8)
  • Hemlock at Vespers (Sister Fidelma, #9)
  • Our Lady Of Darkness (Sister Fidelma, #10)
  • Smoke in the Wind (Sister Fidelma, #11)
Absolution by Murder (Sister Fidelma, #1) Shroud for the Archbishop (Sister Fidelma, #2) Suffer Little Children (Sister Fidelma, #3) Act of Mercy (Sister Fidelma, #8) The Monk Who Vanished (Sister Fidelma, #7)

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