Who Says a 12th Century Benedictine Monk Can’t Be Sexy? – The Brother Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters

Benedictine IlluminationMurder 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).

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

It’s Monday! – and here is what I’ve been up to:

I posted A Discussion of Two Novels by Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake & The Year of the Flood.  It’s a discussion, rather than a review, because I tried to keep the focus on the narrative techniques & away from any major plot points.   So much of the fun of reading these novels comes out of piecing the stories together. To give too much away would ruin the genius of the books.  Both are fabulous reads and I hope I was able to do them justice.

Pauline Melville had an article up in the Guardian UK with her Top 10 list of revolutionary tales.  I posted an excerpt that provides some interesting insight to her latest novel.  Which led me to ask: “How much you want to know about the book you’re reading?  There’s a poll up – so please check it out and let me know your thoughts.

As part of Arianna Huffington’s evil plan for complete global domination:  The Huffington Post has a new Books section (and it’s about time!).  There’s a nifty feature where a blogger can automatically have comments they make to an article posted directly to their blog.  I did a little test run with Beth Kephart’s article on the new FTC Guidelines, entitled Do Book Bloggers Make a Difference?.

I also finished Saint Peter’s Fair, my first book in the Brother Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters, and have started The Virgin in the Ice.  Since finding these books is hit and miss, I’m reading them completely out of order.  It would be ridiculous to try to finish the series before reviewing it, so I’ll be posting my opinion of the series so far in the next day or so. I’ve just received Into Great Silence from Netflix, a documentary on a French Monastery.  I love when everything falls into place like that.

Happy Monday Everyone!  Don’t forget to stop by at J. Kaye’s Blog to see more of what people are reading.

It’s Monday! What Am I Reading?

on_mondaysAnother Monday is here and a literary awards week is behind us.  So what did everyone think?  I’ve never read anything by Hilary Mantel, though I already own Wolf Hall.  This weekend I went out and purchased two more of her novels:  A Change of Climate & Vacant Possession.  Both books are described as black comedies on the back cover – perfect October & November reading in my opinion.  Strangely, it never even occurred to me to look for something by Herta Mueller, even though I was at my favorite used bookshop of all time (Carroll & Carroll, Booksellers in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania) and spent a few minutes discussing the new Nobel laureate with the owner.  His verdict – who was last year’s winner?  I responded: I have no idea.  He nodded, Exactly.

Added to the Mantel stack were a few random books from Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series.  I’ve never read Peters, but a lovely couple who bought a bag of my books at a garage sale this past summer recommended her.  (And if you can’t trust random people who show up in your garage, in the rain, to buy your old paperbacks – well I ask you, who can you trust???)  What’s neat about the Brother Cadfael series is that it takes place during the English civil war, approximately 1139, between King Stephen & Empress Maud.  This it the war which immediately preceded Henry Plantagenet’s rule – for all the Mistress of the Art of Death fans out there.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood is finished, and the review will be up this week.  This is by far my favorite book of 2009.  So much so that after listening to the audio book I bought the hardcover.  The search is now on for “new” used copies of Oryx and Crake to force on family, friends & unsuspecting strangers passing me on the street.  (Remember, there will be a quiz).

My current nightstand steady remains Eating Air by Pauline Melville.  This is one of those books that has me wishing for a blizzard, a log cabin in Maine, and enough food to last a week.  Barring that, I hope to finish by Friday.

Until then, my review for Amphibian by Carla Gunn went up over the weekend.

And for even more recommendations, please don’t forget to check out J. Kaye’s blog.  Happy Monday!