Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Brother Cadfael Mysteries by Ellis Peters

When I read historical fiction, I like the dream to be vivid and continuous. I don’t want to have to worry that the plot will get thin in places because the author doesn’t know what he or she is doing, or that the characters’ motivations (or their speech for that matter) will start to resemble those of 1990s Californians, like Kevin Costner’s in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.

Ellis Peters (a pen name for Edith Pargeter) really knows her stuff. She knows the setting of her stories intimately … both the region of England (Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, near the Welsh border) and the period of history (the 1130’s and 1140’s). So her Brother Cadfael mysteries are really, really terrific historical fiction. For example, clothing terms. The men wear cottes, and sometimes capuchons. They carry things in scrips. Peters is familiar with the daily schedule in the abbey (Prime, Compline, etc.), the herbs that Brother Cadfael grows in his garden, and the processes by which he makes from them pills and ointments. She also knows the country round. Many of the books come with a map in the front to help us make sense of the story. Sometimes the map is just of the town of Shrewsbury and the Benedictine abbey where Brother Cadfael lives. Other times it includes the surrounding countryside, depending on where the action takes place. Some of the best books take us into Wales, where the customs and language are different. (Conveniently, Brother Cadfael speaks Welsh.)

But it’s not just period detail with no action. Peters’ plots often take a while to set up, but once they start to unfold, the drama just keeps coming. The realities of medieval life are what drive the plots and produce the drama. For example, of the three Brother Cadfael stories I just finished, arranged marriage figures crucially in all three plots. Between the three, they also feature a leper colony, stolen treasure, a jongleur, a castle siege, a duel, a kept woman who later becomes a nun, and a hostage situation. This in addition to the requisite minimum of one murder per story and one pair of young lovers. Sometimes there are two couples, often more than one murder. Brother Cadfael plays cupid as well as detective.

Overarching the events in and around Shrewsbury is the civil war between King Steven and Queen Maud that was raging throughout England in the 1130’s and 1140’s. Sometimes Steven and Maud figure crucially in the plot, other times they are just background. In many books they make personal appearances. The political background about Steven and Maud can be overwhelming if there happens to be a lot of it in the first Brother Cadfael book you pick up. But over time, as you read more of the series, you will get to know Steven and Maud just as well as the other regular minor characters. Neither Steven nor Maud is portrayed as being the “right” cause … indeed, a theme of the series is that there are good people and villains on both sides. It is admirable to be faithful to whichever monarch is your lord or lady, yet at the same time, the faithfulness of people on opposite sides also serves to perpetuate an increasingly senseless war.

The books are densely written and that can make them hard to get into. Some of them get off to a slow start, and you have to stick with them for several chapters before they become page-turners. The reason is that it can take Peters several chapters to lay down all the threads for an intricate plot. But when the net is in place and she starts pulling on it, things will happen fast! If you are looking for one of the more accessible BC books to start with, I recommend Summer of the Danes or Virgin in the Ice.