Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Rare Benedictine, by Ellis Peters

My books are still packed up (it is a source of grief to me, in case you hadn't noticed) and my reading time has been slim lately (much truncated by the wonderful, if jerkily cinematic adaptation of Bleak House).

In spite of that, I did manage to finish A Rare Benedictine, by Ellis Peters. Cadfael novels are my favorite mystery fiction. They combine everything I love--a detective with keen perception, biblical, unformulaic justice, sweet love stories, and the overarching back-drop of Benedictine monastery life. Throw in the politics of the time and a mix of Welsh and English names, and what better combination could you have?

The Story
This book is a collection of three short stories. While the first one deals with Cadfael's entry into the monastery, the other two don't give much indication of when they take place.

A Light on the Road to Woodstock--Cadfael promises to serve his master until he settles a dispute over abbey lands with the king. But when Cadfael discovers that his master has a disloyal wife, not to mention that his claim to the land is far from just, his promise of loyalty may not be as simple as it appears.

The Price of Right--Rough Sir FitzHammon has a lot to atone for. So when he brings a pair of silver candlesticks to the abbey, the gift, although doing no good to the starving poor, might do some good to his sorry soul. Then the candlesticks are stolen, and Cadfael has to turn his eye to the man's wife and servants.

Eyewitness--A blackguard may have failed in his attempt to murder Master William, but he didn't fail in stealing the year's rents for the abbey. Cadfael has a double challenge--how to find the money, and how to prevent another murder from occurring. But could the deed have been committed from one of the abbey men themselves?

My Thoughts 
If you're new to Cadfael, I would recommend choosing a more full-blooded mystery before reading these short stories. They're like Tolkien's ad infinitum appendices: most appreciated by those who love the characters and can't get enough.

A Light on the Road to Woodstock--This is interesting in that it gives us a glimpse of Cadfael before he becomes a monk: but the first mystery he solves is lackluster as a whole. It didn't give me anything I didn't know about Cadfael, nor did it explain (as the back claimed it would) why he became a monk. He simply told the prior he was coming to the abbey, and that was it. What the light on the road was I'm sure Cadfael knew, but I didn't. The mystery was easy to guess.

The Price of Right--This was my favorite. With a few deft pen strokes, Ellis Peters painted a self-centered female main character in an absolutely charming shell, including a varied and fascinating cast of drunkard husband, doughty manservants, and self-effacing maidservant. I expected it to be a tale of freedom-from-husband-and-marries-her-true-love--but oh, no. It was quite different, and  Lady FitzHammon and Elfgiva were both female characters worthy of their salt. (Not virtuous, mind, but proverbially saltish.) I would read that mystery again.

Eyewitness--Eyewitness has the great virtue of offering several prime suspects, all of which are hard to single out. Just before the final climax I forced myself to pick one, and by sheer mad luck I was right. The character development was fairly nonexistent, but it was fun to have a challenge in figuring out the twists and turns.

It was the perfect book to read during a chaotic week. My favorite part, however, was the introduction, in which Ellis Peters says "So here he is, not a convert, for this is not a conversion...Cadfael has always been an unquestioning believer. What happens to him on the road to Woodstock is simply the acceptance of a revelation from within that...he is confronted by a new need and a different challenge." Sometimes authors feel such a weighty burden to have their character's behavior match his beliefs that they don't allow them to believe until they are good. For her to simply accept that Cadfael was a believer, with all his faults and virtues, was refreshing. Peters also explains the origin of Cadfael's name (which I love, because I pick out character names just the same way) and how unexpected to her his popularity was.

If you're new to Cadfael, and looking for a good place to start, I've reviewed several more Ellis Peters' novels, including The Hermit of Eyton Forest and The Rose Rent, The Holy Thief, and The Pilgrim of Hate.

I've watched a handful of the BBC Cadfael movies from the library, my favorite so far being One Corpse Too Many, which you can watch for free on Amazon. Please be aware that there is language worth muting, and several scenes after a battle that I fast-forward through.  It is not for young viewers, and even though it is portrayed fairly tastefully, it is honest in its dramatization of the times. Previewing by a responsible adult is advised.

6 comments:

  1. Oohhh, this looks interesting. I adore mysteries, and a monk detective in a Benedictine setting? I need to try this. Is there any book you would recommend to start with?

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    1. I think they would be up your alley. :) The Rose Rent is good as I recall, but One Corpse Too Many in book form is wonderful as well!

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  2. I am really keen on reading some of Ellis Peters' Cadfael books. As I mentioned to you on facebook, I actually got a copy of some of the Caedfael stories in an omnibus edition. . . which include the St.Peter's Fair/Leper of St.Giles/Virgin in the Ice" stories. I remembered your sharing how you enjoyed those stories when I was at a bookfest, and was so excited to find a Cadfael collection, though it isn't the first in the series I think. Do you think I can dig into them from those stories without missing out on the story-line (as in Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie's Hercule Poriot) or do I need to start from the beginning?

    A mystery set in the medieval era, with a monk as a detective sounds really fascinating.
    Lovely review, Schuyler! :)

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    1. I think you could start pretty much anywhere. I started with #10 (which had some spoilers) and did just fine. The Leper of St. Giles is a good one, and I've read bits of Virgin in the Ice, though I have not read St. Peter's Fair! I think you'll really enjoy them, and I can't wait to hear what you think! :)

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  3. So glad you got to read these! They sound like so much fun. :D I love the cover on that book too...it's so creative.

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    1. I do too! It reminds me a bit of stained glass. :) And it combines all three stories!

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