I say 'mystery'.
You say "Sherlock Homes", or "Agatha Christie", or perhaps, for the very good Dickens fans, you might say "Edwin Drood".
I say "Brother Cadfael".
Ellis Peters, really Edith Mary Pargeter, never attended college, but her brilliant self-study and knowledge of her Welsh lineage helped her craft the numerous stories of one Brother Cadfael. I have read two of the twenty novels, though I must admit not consecutively, and today I would like to review The Pilgrim of Hate, a medieval mystery with a Benedictine sleuth.
A Bit About the Man
Brother Cadfael became a monk a bit later in his life, so throughout his mysteries, he and those around him constantly come up with bits of his past. His close friends suspect he had a wife at one point, possibly children as well, but they never ask and so far he hasn't spoken of any. He took part in a crusade or two, and in spite of his holy orders his face lightens and his blood tingles at the tales of the constant warring between King Stephen and the Empress Maud. He lives in Shrewsbury at his cloister, the community herbalist, but because his godson lives in town Abbot Radalfus allows him to leave whenever he wishes to do his duty. Because of this freedom he sees quite a bit of action by the side of his young friend, Hugh Beringar. What really brings him to the fore of these mysteries, though, is his great healing skill, which brings under his care poor pilgrims and Welsh prisoners alike.
Brother Cadfael feels a bit apprehensive about the upcoming Feast of St. Winifred. He alone knows that the expected miracles hoped for from this gentle woman's ashes really won't be able to take place, because he removed her ashes years ago from her coffin. (A Morbid Taste For Bones, Book 1) In keeping with his good Catholic roots, he did it with the sense that she wanted him to, but he's never been entirely sure. In fact, a criminal's bones rest there instead, making it even worse.
Add to this complication the supposedly unconnected fact that a knight siding with King Stephen was killed far away in Winchester, after a street skirmish with Empress Maud's men. Cadfael really doesn't concern himself with this, until the pilgrims begin to arrive for the feast: a crippled boy Rhun with his beautiful sister Melangell and his aunt; three tradesmen who really look suspicious; and a strange pair of young men who never lose sight of each other for an instant.
Wha about the two young men, Matthew and Ciaran? They both come straight to Cadfael's herbarium to seek relief for Ciaran, who took a vow to walk the length of England barefoot with a heavy cross on a thin cord around his neck. He's in rough shape, and though both Matthew and Cadfael beg him to remove the cross if only for a moment, he utterly refuses. Touched by their devotion to one another, Cadfael watches as they interact with the fellow pilgrims come to Saint Winifred's feast, and young love blossoms between Matthew and Mellangel.
Then the celebrations take an ugly turn. A young friend of Cadfael's, Sir Olivier, comes to the feast in search of Luc Meverel, the adopted son of the dead knight, who may have done him to death unlawfully. Obviously, Ciaran and Matthew are likely candidates--but which? Then Ciaran binds Melangell to a promise not to tell Matthew that he is pursuing his journey alone. He claims that he doesn't want to burden his friend any longer. Melangell keeps her promise until after the feast, when Matthew discovers her trickery and sets off after him. But which is Luc Meverel? And who committed the foul deed upon the hapless knight in Winchester?
Follow along through the tangled web as Cadfael sets his wits and his herbs to work to solve the mystery. And take time, too, to make friends with crippled Rhun; whose life shines out suddenly in a burst of brilliant illumination. Not everyone is suspect: but there's just enough doubt to keep you guessing. :)
Though the Roman Catholic doctrine certainly exists in these stories, it's not overly heavy. I choose to interpret the abnormal events that take place as workings of God rather than the powers of dead saints. The Catholic mindset certainly presents some errors, but the fact that Brother Cadfael views justice under the wider scope of Christianity really adds a special dimension to the conclusions of these mysteries.
I used a bit of white-out here and there, but this particular book didn't require a lot.
I will say, though, that Mass Market editions present rather tasteless scenes of the victims on their front covers. It doesn't detract from the story, but you may want to cover it if you are reading it around certain ages, or in public settings.
Brother Cadfael is a bit of a 'situational ethicist', probably also from his Catholic trappings of purgatory, confession, and prayers for absolution. Situational ethics, the idea of deciding right and wrong based on the situation, is certainly not a biblical concept. But Brother Cadfael doesn't implment this in every novel, and while I would disagree with him occasionally in his handlings, guides this particular situation excellently.
If you choose to read Brother Cadfael, you'll be confronted with questions of justice, mercy, love, hatred, and loyalty in the midst of political turmoil.
The Cadfael Chronicles
BBC adapted Brother Cadfael novels for television. I have never seen any, and did not intend to mention them in this post, but it came to my attention while researching that BBC blatantly changed the whole scope of particular novel. The identity of the criminal changes from one person to another, which didn't win any points with me as they tapped on my favorite character to substitute. Also, they change one particular character from a patient and God-fearing Christian to a selfish brute that deceives and forces others to beg for him. BBC's episode of The Pilgrim of Hate does not remain true to this particular story, and changes some of the most redeeming elements of the book. More than that I can't say, as I have not seen the entire episode, but I did read that the episodes produced before Peters' death were more accurate. I would be interested to hear anyone's thoughts, if they have seen it.
Alas, I have no room here to delve into the knotty question 'what is true justice?' but never fear that when I return with another Brother Cadfael review, I'll be re-visiting this point. Peters, in the two books I have read, doesn't give 'a short shrift and a lang tow' to the criminal; and reading about the characters agonizing over the criminal's fate is almost as harrowing as finding out 'whodunnit'. I would also like to re-visit 'situational ethics' in more detail at another time. With so many points to discuss, I have my future all laid out. ;)
Obviously, I haven't read these chronicles in order, but it isn't completely necessary. It's a bit like reading Poirot or Holmes. Sure, you can start with A Study In Scarlet, but if you decide not to, you'll catch on quite easily and it won't detract from your enjoyment. Oh, and for your information, The Pilgrim of Hate is #10 in the series.