The Cadfael Books by Ellis Peters
It’s hard to imagine Sherlock Holmes in a church. Hercule Poirot, possibly; Miss Marple, certainly -- but not Holmes. One imagines our pipe-puffing detective surveying the scene over the monocle, examining but not participating. Faith and logic have always had a slightly uncomfortable co-existence, particularly when each are carried to extremes, and it takes a rare person indeed to make peace with this fact.
With this in mind, those readers who enjoy historical fiction, mysteries, or simply a well-spun tale, might enjoy the histories of a sleuth who has captured the British imagination for the last few decades while evading the American audience. He’s not particularly gritty; he doesn’t have a marriage that’s falling apart under the stress of his job; nor is he haunted by the memories of a fallen partner. Instead, he lives in the countryside and spends his days in a robe and slippers: he’s a medieval monk.
A Rare Benedictine, indeed. Edith Pargeter, writing as Ellis Peters, explains in her introduction to the trio of tales exploring the past of her robed detective that “Brother Cadfael sprang to life suddenly and unexpectedly when he was already approaching sixty, mature, experienced, fully armed and seventeen years tonsured.” Cadfael ap Meilyr ap Dafydd is our resident sleuth -- a devout Benedictine, apothecary, and worldly Welshman. Peters writes that she found the name “Cadfael” only once in the records, given as the baptismal name of Saint Cadog, who himself later abandoned it. Cadfael has since enjoyed 20 full-length novels, three short stories and a series of TV movie adaptations. If Cadfael’s popularity in Britain hasn’t translated to American sales it is certainly time for us to catch up.
Shrewsbury, Cadfael’s adopted home, was an English stronghold in a county which often served as the focal point for much of the contentious (and sometimes violent) relationship between the English and their stubbornly independent neighbors. The real-life Abbey at which Cadfael resides was a popular pilgrim destination, being in possession of the remains of St. Winifred. The first-ever House of Commons sat here in 1283 to decide the (unfortunate) fate of the last Prince of Wales, and Richard II convened a Great Parliament here 100 years later. History has made quite a celebrity of Shrewsbury; if you look at a map of the town, with the Severn caressing it from three sides, you will understand why being an entirely Left Bank affair is both a blessing and an invitation to notoriety. The sense of place is palpable throughout Peters’s writings.
And so it is hardly a surprise that a weary traveler, sailor and former Crusader would cease his wanderings in this particular spot. Within the Abbey walls, all may be peaceful, but there are ample opportunities for a rough-edged philosopher to spread peace, love and justice in unconventional ways. When the eyes of the law prove insufficient, there is Brother Cadfael.
Peters’s plots are compact and believable, and more often than not set within a context of factional intrigue derived from the competition between King Stephen and Empress Maud (Matilda), a contender for the throne. The Virgin in the Ice, for example, sees the rescue of a pair of lost orphans and their minder, driven out by siege, complicated by the allegiance of their uncle to Empress Maud, which has prevented his entrance to Shropshire. St. Peter’s Fair features what appears to be a simple matter of revenge, but is in fact a symptom of a larger intrigue played out within a medieval marketplace. The Summer of the Danes takes place amidst civil unrest, with brothers contending for power on the coast, as a headstrong young woman defies those around her to seek independence (and gets kidnapped in the process).
These are not political novels, but politics impact the characters naturally and irrevocably; ultimately, those who end up happy are those who choose love and God over wealth or power. Cadfael’s knowledge of the world outside his sanctuary, and his carnal knowledge of these entrancing ladies, gives him an insight into human nature which the other monks lack. The women in Peters’ novels are feisty -- they do not accept matches with men not of their choosing, nor do they stand idly by to let others make decisions without them. In The Summer of the Danes, Cadfael is sympathetic to Heledd’s flight from her betrothed in a way the others are not; however wealthy and handsome her fiancé, Cadfael understands that Heledd will not be subject to one she has not herself selected.
Still, this is an unquestionably medieval society. Rogues abound -- sometimes young, sometimes drunk, often both. Young ladies blush with a wholesomely delicate, entrancing beauty that seems to have eluded modern fashions. But spare the condescension -- secrets are kept behind those dewy eyes, or, just as likely, nestled among gold-spun hair. Names of people and places play like music, and deliciously rare words become part of the common vocabulary: brazier, decoction, febrifuge. Peters gives her characters a cadence which seems natural but not modern, historical but not dated. Forests are alive, and paths become as important as those who walk upon them. The Cadfael novels are richly rooted in local geography, allowing the reader to move through this world and become a part of it.
The Cadfael books aren’t challenging reads, but they will excite the “little grey cells,” to borrow a phrase from another famous sleuth. Peters effectively pulls together the strengths of the historical fiction and mystery genres, and is nothing if not original -- who else has written detective story largely set in a leper colony, and pulled it off?
I’d say that part of the mystery would be tracking the books down, but the Internet has made Cadfael more accessible to North American readers, if not more well-known. Should you be planning a trip to England, however, a visit to the quirky town of Shrewsbury -- and its Abbey -- would not be amiss. Indeed, despite all the history of Shrewsbury Abbey, Brother Cadfael remains one of the top reasons tourists are attacted to its walls. One wonders what the unassuming Brother would think about that.
The Second Cadfael Omnibus: St. Peter’s Fair, The Leper of St. Giles, The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters.
Time Warner Paperbacks, 1991.
A Rare Benedictine by Ellis Peters
Headline Book Publishing, Ltd, 1990.