Murder just isn’t what it used to be. Pick any thriller or mystery off the best seller lists and you’ll see that murderers no longer need motive. They kill for pleasure. Greed, power, lust are quaint vestiges of a distant past. Nowadays everyone is a psychopath, sociopath, masochist, sadist… a diagnosis is de rigueur. It’s rather disheartening. Which is why I recommend taking a step back… all the way back to the 12th century.
Ellis Peters was the pseudonym of British author Edith Pargeter (1913-1995). Her most popular series starred the crime solving Welsh Benedictine Brother Cadfael. It consists of approximately twenty books – all still in print. But good luck finding them at your local B&N! I’ve been scavenging my copies at used bookshops. The result? I started with Saint Peter’s Fair (#4 in the series) and am now halfway through The Virgin in the Ice (#6). So far I’m happy to report that the gaps in continuity haven’t been all that hard to fill in. In fact, I’m quite enjoying the treasure hunt quality reading these has taken.
If you’re a fan of the mysteries of Agatha Christie and Alexander McCall Smith then the Brother Cadfael Chronicles could be for you. This is not Hilary Mantel’s gritty version of Tudor England. Peters’ narrative lacks the plot convolutions and urgent pacing of the more recent Mistress of the Art of Death books, or even of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Her’s is a kinder, gentler medieval period that readers visit with a warm cup of tea at the ready. (Keep in mind that these books were written by a middle aged authoress who received the British Empire Medal for her work in WW II. They were adapted by the BBC Radio. They weren’t meant to raise the pulse rate of anyone under 85).
Ellis Peters wrote mysteries in a different time for a different audience. She wasn’t competing with television shows like CSI or Criminal Minds, – shows that focus on the evil men do to their fellow man. The Brother Cadfael stories, like Christie’s and the more recent Smith’s, present the reader with a compelling puzzle. The puzzle is neatly solved in the second to last chapter, and all loose ends are tied up in the final pages. Everyone get’s to go to sleep at the end of the night without checking the closet for serial killers. There’s something to be said for that.
Set during the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda (which lasted some 10 years), the novels are located primarily at or around the Benedictine Monastery of St. Peter and Saint Paul in the town of Shrewsbury, England. The war features prominently. Characters declare themselves as “Stephen’s ” or “Maud’s”. Events are shaped by political aspirations and machinations. City walls need to be rebuilt, refugees sheltered and war crimes take place on the peripheries. Ellis does a nice job of integrating the war without indulging in the horror and, overall, demonstrates a real sense of the period.
Rhodri’s two nimble little Welsh boatmen went to work briskly, hefting the heavy bales of hides and the wool-sacks with expert ease, and piling them on the jetty, and Rhodri and Cadfael addressed themselves pleasurably to watching the lively scene around them; as many of the townsfolk and the abbey guests were also doing. On a fine summer evening it was the best of entertainments to lean over the parapet of the bridge, or stroll along the green path to the Gaye, and stare at an annual commotion which was one of the year’s highlights…
“A thing worth noting,” said Rhodri, spreading his thick legs on the springy boards, “how both halves of England can meet in commerce, while they fall out in every other field. Show a man where there’s money to be made, and he’ll be there. If barons and kings had the same good sense, a country could be at peace, and handsomely the gainer by it.”
“Yet I fancy,” said Cadfael dryly, “that there’ll be some hot contention here even between traders, before the three days (of the fair) are up. More ways than one of cutting throats.”
“Well, every wise man keeps a weapon about him, whatever suits his skill, that’s only good sense, too. But we live together, we live together, better than princes manage it. Though I grant you,” he said weightily, “princes make good use of these occasions, for that matter. No place like one of your greater fairs for exchanging news and views without being noticed, or laying plots and stratagems, or meeting someone you’d liefer not be seen meeting. Nowhere so solitary as in the middle of a market-place!”
“In a divided land,” said Cadfael thoughtfully, “you may very well be right.”
– from Saint Peter’s Fair. Parenthesis mine.
St. Peter’s Fair, which seems a decent representation of what to expect from the series as a whole, contains quite a bit of dialogue similar to the excerpt above. It’s a refreshing contrast to the current market glut of first person narratives. The characters are engaging, if surprisingly forward thinking for their time. Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine who retired from the world after having lived a full life in it, is a shrewd detective with the gift of being able to get on with everyone. Other characters recur throughout the series, like his good friend Hugh Beringer, the deputy sheriff, to provide assistance as needed. These relationships are convincingly handled and provide some funny bits as well. Peters created a very familial, heartwarming sense of friendship and community between characters that makes up a large part of the series’ charm. And while you may not be surprised by the outcomes – all the good people are clever and kind, all the bad people are eventually punished – you will be entertained. Think good returns for relatively little investment… And in these times, who can argue with that?
(Note: This book was read as part of the R.I.P. IV Challenge. I’ve now reached Peril the Second. If you’re looking for more recommendations for macabre Fall reading, I please follow the link. The challenge lasts through October, 31st).