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Archive for the ‘Peters, Ellis’ Category

Cover of 'The Devil's Novice' I have grumbled a bit about Ellis Peters recently and said that I am not sure why I bother reading her novels. Yesterday told me why. It’s because they’re not taxing. You don’t have to think too much. You could fall off to sleep somewhere and still continue reading. Perfect for reading when feeling under the weather, as I was.

That said, though this was an easy read, it is a more impressive outing than The Heretic’s Apprentice. The mystery centres on the connection between Brother Meriet, a new entrant to the monastery, who is deeply troubled by nightmares, and the disappearance of Peter Clemence, a cleric with friends in high places. One gripe is that it was too easy to figure out why Clemence had disappeared; Peters’ red herrings didn’t work on me. But who had done it and exactly how Meriet came into the picture–that was deviously plotted. And a nicely delineated prime suspect; Brother Meriet is given at least a tint of grey and allowed some interesting interaction with the other monks. A stimulating and simultaneously relaxing mystery–the freshly scrubbed cleanliness of Peters’ medieval world is a little more open to sullying than it normally is in her books.

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Almost inevitably, when I read a Brother Cadfael book, it strikes me that the former crusader, now mediaeval monk and herbalist, is too good a character for the workmanlike series of novels Ellis Peters wrote around him. They’re pleasant books on the whole, but lend themselves a trifle too easily to a drinking game — take one sip when a stranger arrives at the Abbey, take five sips when a dewy, fresh-faced young person is locked up and under suspicion, drink the whole damn bottle when the lovers are united after the mystery is solved. Peters’ books lack the layered philosophical and psychological texture of that most perfect of mediaeval mysteries, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose; but then again, that is comparing bananas to mangos. Only discontent can come of it.

The Heretic’s Apprentice does no better and no worse than Peters’ other installments in the series. The young clerk Elave comes to the Abbey, bearing the body of his master, William of Lythwood, to be buried there. He brings also a secret treasure in a beautiful carved box, as dowry for William’s adoptive neice Fortunata–and a trick of letting his tongue get him into trouble. Before long, William’s worthiness to be buried on Abbey ground has been debated, and the very doctrine of original sin itself has been contradicted–and then, the body of a man is found floating in the river, stabbed.

The murder mystery is neatly, through hurriedly, solved. The different pieces of Peters’ jigsaw fit together fairly well–characters, settings, historical background, social and technical knowledge, and that particular tidiness of expression that she brings to her writing, with its neat evocations of a mediaeval England that was doubtless dirtier and bloodier and smellier than she makes it seem.

But the more arresting point of this novel is the theological discussion that is given entry, with references to various doctrinal debates and schismatic heresies that serve as a reminder of how the points of religious belief are inevitably based on the arguments of men. They remain only superficial, a plot and conversation point, with no philosophy entering into the crafting of the novel and affecting its form or language, but they do underline how ably researched the Cadfael books are and how they have been a doorway into historical interest in the Middle Ages for so many readers. The revelation of the treasure, too, while bringing up a notion not new in historical scholarship or philosophy or cultural theory, is ultimately a way of bringing that idea (which I won’t discuss, for fear of spoilers) to a wide readership. What was valuable at a particular point in history, and to whom, and why? These ideas, and Cadfael himself, might be worthy of a more literary treatment–but for now, this is what we have. And very nice it is too, though I don’t think niceness is what was called for.

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