Posts Tagged ‘Edith Pargeter’

Ellis Peters: The Devil’s Novice

February 20, 2014

61o3TNR3byL._AA160_I was going to call this post ‘Comfort Reading’, as detective fiction is one of the kinds of reading I automatically turn to when I’m not feeling well; it’s an easy read, not too demanding, yet satisfying. I got to thinking about the Brother Cadfael series of mediaeval whodunnits, and read up on their author. My initial attraction to the books was their Shrewsbury setting.

If you’re not familiar with them, they are a series of twenty novels set in the Shrewsbury area in the mid-twelfth century, focused on an elderly monk as the detective, working in collaboration with the deputy sheriff of the town. The timing is interesting: less than a century after the Norman Conquest, so still plenty of resentment towards the invaders, a remote setting in the disputed borderlands between England and Wales, and at a time of civil war between Stephen and Matilda.

There’s a genre similarity, if you compare these stories with the archetype, ie Sherlock Holmes. There you have the late Victorian era, very settled rather than tumultuous, and the setting of the great metropolis, London being the largest and most important city on the planet at the time. Cadfael’s is a religious, Holmes’ a secular age.

There are also character similarities and differences: Cadfael is freelance, like Holmes, in the sense that he is a monk who is unofficially allowed by his superior to engage in detective work from time to time. He is a mature and wise monk who experienced life in the wide world before taking to the cloister, and he works with Hugh Berengar the deputy sheriff, a secular official, and less of a side-kick than Holmes’ Watson, who nevertheless has professional expertise as a doctor, which at times is useful. The Cadfael/ Berengar pairing feels more equal; the collaboration works; the Watson as author trick is unnecessary.

One of the keys to success in the genre does seem to be the accretive approach over time: as one reads the twenty novels, time passes, historical events unfold, develop and affect different stories in different ways; our knowledge of places develops too, as does our understanding of and sympathy with the characters. The same is obviously true of Holmes and Watson as we follow their developing friendship through a period of some twenty or thirty years, Watson’s marriages as well as their shared lives in Baker Street. And the same is true of the characters and places in Ed McBain‘s 87th Precinct mysteries.

There is a major difference, clearly: Conan Doyle set his stories and characters more or less in his own time, as did McBain, whereas Peters (real name Edith Pargeter) deliberately moved back in time eight and a half centuries. Her research seems very thorough and convincing; she is reckoned to be the originator of the genre of historical detective fiction, now imitated by dozens of writers. Did Umberto Eco and she have their inspirations almost simultaneously?

One thing which doesn’t change over time is crime: theft, greed, murder are pretty much the same through the ages; methods of killing may be a little more ‘advanced’ nowadays and science a little more helpful, but careful observation and reflection have always been needed to get to the bottom, and justice is not always done…

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: