Friday, January 25, 2013

Brother Cadfael: Double Edition

When I look through my bookshelves after a particularly exhausting round of reading or life in general, I quite often fall back on Brother Cadfael. There is nothing quite so peaceful as solving a foul murder mystery in Shrewsbury with the Abby's progressive-minded herbalist, whose ideas of justice often surprise and delight me.

And so today, after a short foray back into Cadfael's world, I bring you a double review of the thirteenth and fourteenth Cadfael chronicles.

About Brother Cadfael
 I haven't read the books in order (my acquaintance being with the 10th, 9th, 5th, 13th, and 14th of The Cadfael Chronicles, in that order) and I find that in spite of this I catch on to Cadfael's past history quite well. With the help of a Wikipedia article to fill in the gaps, I can tell you that after a stormy life serving in the Crusades (contracting a few secrets along the way) Brother Cadfael repents of his past and decides to take on the life of a monk in the service of the church. Though I have yet to find if this is due to his religious devotion or a certain disappointment in the affairs of the heart. His knowledge of medicine and the world in general allow him to assist the local magistrates in more than one deadly mystery, and give him large amounts of freedom outside the abbey walls.

Don't ever visit Shrewsbury, though, especially the abbey. You're likely to be abducted or murdered withing 24 hours of your arrival. ;)

Perhaps some readers may find the Roman Catholic influences off-setting, they are neither heavy, nor overcome-able. In fact, though the Catholics had much erroneous theology, reading Brother Cadfael offers a peaceful place of entertainment and reflection, often giving you the idea that you're in the cloisters yourself for a holiday. Besides, it is both valuable history and a part of the early Church of Christ, before the split of the Reformation.

Ellis Peters (the authoress) sets her series during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud, both fighting for the throne of Great Britain. Throughout the books she deftly weaves in this fascinating time period, and even those who know the ending bite their nails as they wait for the outcome of the two monarchs' fray. Peters lived in Shrewsbury, and her geographical descriptions and depiction of the people are quite detailed, adding a charm and personality to the plots.

The Cadfael Chronicles are best read one or two at a time, not the entire series at once, as you'll find many of the same plot elements in each book--a pair of young lovers with insurmountable obstacles, a dead lord or monk, as the case may be, and generally a runaway Handsome Young Man fleeing from his master's oppression. Very nice things in themselves, but best enjoyed spaced out, avoiding a gluttonous intake of all of them at once.

Oh, and by the by--I just discovered today that while many people pronounce the monk's name (CAD-file), Ellis originally intended it to be (CAD-vel) though the traditional Welsh pronunciation would be (CAD-vile). I plead guilty, and must re-train myself in either Peters' or the traditional Welsh pronunciation.

And now, after that brief word of introduction, I give you the following Brother Cadfael mysteries.

The Rose Rent--the 13th Brother Cadfael Chronicle
After her husband died and her child miscarried, grief-stricken Judith Perle willed his property to the abbey at Shrewsbury. She only included the stipulation that once a year, on a certain day, she must receive one rose from a certain rosebush in the garden as payment. If the rose is not given, the contract is annulled. The brothers have faithfully carried out their end of the agreement for three years running, sending it by the hands of 20-year-old Brother Eluric. However, eight days before their fourth delivery, the widow Perle's carefully laid plans disintegrate. Brother Eluric, dedicated by his parents at the age of 3 to the monastic life, asks for release from the delivery of the rose rent because he loves Judith. Prior Radulfus agrees, and gives the duty to the cottage's tenant, Niall the bronzesmith.
Many men desire the widow Perle, particularly Vivian Hind, who could really use the income from her extensive property; Godfrey Fullers, who desires to join her weaving works with his own business; and Branwen, Judith's foreman at her weaving works. Each of these men badger Judith to take back her property from the abbey and marry one of them, since the abbey's holdings would double her dowry. But Judith wants no marriage, and along with her capable cousin Miles, runs the factory quite well on her own.
The night after Brother Eluric seeks his release, Niall the bronzesmith finds the rosebush savagely attacked, and Eluric dead beneath it. Cadfael confirms that Eluric happened upon the rosebush as someone tried to destroy it, and the person effectively silenced him.

Two days later, Judith Perle disappears, and Cadfael suspects abduction.

Fingers point to the three lovers, for if they are able to keep her past the rent day, then the contract with the abbey is effectively annulled, and if they force her into marriage during that time, they will have gained control of all her property, thus securing it from falling again into the abbey's hands. With Judith's good reputation in peril, Hugh Beringar (the local magistrate) sends out his men to search every corner of Shrewsbury, while Niall the bronzesmith keeps watch over the rosebush.

And Cadfael is in for some surprising twists as he tries to solve the mystery before the clock runs out.

The Hermit of Eyton Forest--14th Brother Cadfael Chronicle
King Stephen has the Empress Maud effectively trapped  at Oxford Castle with her two main supporters--Richard of Gloucester and Brian Fitzcount--separated from her. Fitzcout needs money, so the Empress Maud sends a messenger with her jewels to supply his army. The messenger's horse is found with empty saddlebags, but Renaud Bourchier is gone, most likely murdered.

So much for affairs of state. The abbey has problems of a different kind.

Prior Radulfus has guardianship over ten-year-old Richard Ludel, whose father has just died after the wounds he received after the fight at Lincoln. Richard's grandmother wants him to come home and marry a girl 12 years his senior, so that the adjoining lands may be added to Richard's estate. The ten-year-old is horrified, and elects to stay at the abbey under Radulfus' care.
His grandmother reluctantly consents, and busies herself establishing a strange hermit, the holy Cuthred, in a chapel on Richard's property. A young man accompanies Cuthred, carrying messages from the holy hermit imploring Radulfus to give the boy back to his grandmother.
The Handsome Young Man, Hyacinth, falls under suspicion when vicious Drogo Boiset rides into the abbey looking for his runaway villein named Brand. Radulfus isn't going to try very hard to help return the boy to a life of cruel usage, but Richard Ludel hears the over-righteous Brother Jerome tell Drogo  about Hyacinth hiding with the hermit, and rides off in hot haste to warn him.

Richard never comes back. When Drogo Boiset rides off to check out this Hyacinth, he never comes back either. Cadfael finds Boiset murdered, but Hugh Beringar and his men can find neither Richard, nor Hyacinth.

They should have asked the pretty young girl in the forest. ;)

Drogo's murderer must be found, and Richard must be rescued before he is forced to marry Hiltrude.

Perhaps the strange Rafe of Coventry can help Cadfael solve the puzzle.

My Thoughts
I must claim Hugh Beringar as my perennial favorite character. Entertaining acquaintances such as Hyacinth and Niall come and go, but Hugh's friendship with Cadfael endears him to me. I look forward to reading of their first meeting one day in One Corpse Too Many, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. Hugh has the knack of turning a blind eye at all the right spots.
The Cadfael Chronicles contain sundry profanities, but not often, and correction tape takes care of it for those who chose to do so. Our library got rid of these books and I snapped them up as soon as they came through, but I have now read through all of mine, and I shall have to look for the others as I attend various book sales this year. They are definitely worth picking up.
So far my favorite Brother Cadfael mystery is still The Pilgrim of Hate, which I reviewed here. This book introduced me to Brother Cadfael, though I do warn you, it has some pretty big spoilers if it's your first one out.
 As I mentioned in that post, the Mass Market paperback editions have rather lurid front covers, but don't be deterred by them, as it's there for shock value.
I must say, I was relieved after The Rose Rent that the murderer does sometimes get brought to justice. It's not good if they get away with it every time. ;) However, I love Brother Cadfael's twist on on human justice mixed with biblical justice, and in some cases, mercy to the criminal. So far the only one I raised an eyebrow on was Dead Man's Ransom, but I'll probably read that again sometime to see if I missed something. I think Ellis Peters brings a valuable facet to the mystery genre, that of forcing the reader to think through the moral implications of the character's actions. That's a good book, when it forces you to think, while all the while giving you relaxation and enjoyment, and I'm quite impressed with the way she carries it off.

If you have a quiet afternoon, or are in need of a light read, Try out Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries. They are sure to delight you, and I guarantee you'll be fast friends with this unorthodox monk  by the end of them. :)

Lady Bibliophile

1 comment:

  1. Dear Lady B,
    Sounds very exciting! You've been devouring those for days. ;) They sound really cool! :D :D :D
    Great post!
    Love, Carrie-Grace


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