Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael

July 12, 2017

I’ve long been partial to these mediaeval tales, and a recent trip to a charity shop brought me a good deal closer to completing my collection, with three more novels. I like detective stories, I’m interested in mediaeval history and monasticism and have grown to love Shrewsbury and Shropshire over the years. Also, in the Abbey church today is Wilfred Owen’s monument. So, what’s not to like, as they say?

Ellis Peters (a pseudonym) was well-versed in place and time, as well as the daily life of Benedictine monasteries; though I don’t go looking for errors, I have not yet come across any. And, in the genre of the detective story, she does extremely well.

To begin with, her hero (?) Brother Cadfael, is no ordinary monk, called to a life of prayer and contemplation from an early age, and knowing nothing else: his was a mature vocation, after adventures in the Crusades, full experience of worldly life which we gradually learn about through the cycle of novels. Eventually we learn of his loves in the East, and that he has a son. As the abbey’s herbalist, he needs to be out and about collecting what he needs to make his remedies, and this allows him to pursue his investigations. He’s a very sharp observer, and his past gives him a broad knowledge and understanding of human behaviour that many of his fellow monks lack.

The formula for successful detective stories often requires a sidekick – a Watson to every Holmes. Ellis Peters develops, over the course of the novels, an interesting tweak: once the old Shropshire sheriff is succeeded by his deputy, a true friendship and effective working relationship develops between the religious and the secular, as Cadfael and Hugh Berengar work together to unravel a range of mysteries.

Obviously crime is a key element of such fiction, but the kinds of crime are not the same through the whole genre: in mediaeval times murder, revenge, theft and concealed identity dominate; financial and sexual crime, blackmail and the like, which are more prevalent in recent times, are pretty much absent. And in an age where the rule of law is not firmly established in the same way it is now, it is much easier for criminals to flee and escape justice completely: the relative lawlessness and foreign jurisdiction of Wales are literally on the doorstep; the English crown and government is by no means secure in the mid-twelfth century, either… Like Holmes, who can be his own moral compass as a consulting detective and allow someone to avoid the strict penalty of the law if he feels it justified, so Cadfael too chooses at times not to reveal facts others have not managed to notice; his moral judgements are between himself and his confessor.

Atmosphere and continuity are further aspects of success in the genre: consider Conan Doyle’s masterly evocation of Victorian London, the largest metropolis on the planet at the time, ultra-modern, at the heart of a huge world empire and yet concealing much darkness, poverty and evil, or Raymond Chandler’s wealthy, sexy and sleazy California or Colin Dexter’s Oxford. Peters’ evocation of a mediaeval city, its religious and secular sides and its hinterland, is masterly, convincing and detailed; it builds up through the series of twenty-one books, and is often supplemented by carefully-drawn maps. We come to know the abbey in detail; the personnel change, as they would over a period of about ten years covered by all the stories; relationships and interactions develop over time just as does that between Holmes and Watson over the fifty-six stories of that canon.

Compared with other detectives and other times, I often feel there is not a lot of actual detection in these stories – the sciences that would support this in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously undeveloped – although a sense of mystery is sustained, solution of the mystery follows in the usual way by not letting the reader in on everything that the detective has observed or deduced until the very end, and often all is cleared up through a forced confession by the guilty party. The pace is leisurely, couleur locale is paramount, the characters are interesting: Ellis Peters is a full member of the club of master detective story writers. Easy and enjoyable reading.

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