Thursday 3 September 2009

The milk of human kindness

It may be that I won't even try to read a murder mystery by anyone but Ellis Peters until I've read everything she's written - as Ellis Peters AND under her real name, Edith Pargeter. I like her works that much. Admittedly, that's a lot of reading to do, but I'm pretty sure I'm up for it.

I've noted here before that, for me, there's no one more reliable than Ellis Peters (not even P.G. Wodehouse!) and having just finished The Leper of St. Giles, the fifth in the 20-volume Brother Cadfael series, I stand by that assessment. Indeed, this was the best one yet and I can only imagine they'll get better and better as Peters becomes increasingly comfortable in negotiating the fictional world she's created.

Ellis Peters' Cadfael tales always make me incredibly happy and often teary-eyed but in a sort of pleased and hopeful way. The Leper of St. Giles was no different in these regards but Cadfael's conversation at the end of the novel with the titular character, Lazarus (as he prefers to be known), was incredibly powerful. Having solved the mystery of the two people found strangled to death in the woods outside Shrewsbury Abbey, Cadfael has also solved the mysteries both of this particular leper's involvement therein and his real identity.

Encouraging Lazarus to come out of hiding and re-enter the world, as his leprosy has long since ceased being contagious, Cadfael can only be halted in his persuasions when Lazarus removes his face cloth to reveal all the ravages of disease, time, and pain that have rendered him unable and unwilling to consider such a return. And Peters, so gentle and concise as she always is, writes simply, "And Cadfael was silenced."

No sentimentality, no drama, just a statement of fact, so short but so full of Cadfael's respect for the man and what he's endured, as well as humility when forced to contemplate an exclusion from life even he, in his cloistered world, would never have to live through. Ellis Peters, you were the most human and humane of writers! I adore you!

On a less breathy and emotional note, I for once figured out who the murderer was. Mind, I think Peters made this one easier than usual for even though this was a murder mystery, the focus was really on who Lazarus was, rather than on whodunnit. Yet, even though Peters gave me this one, I still blew it when it came to figuring out why he did it - I got all distracted by what I thought were echoes of the medieval story of Patient Griselde and missed the real clues.

Not only that, I was spectacularly wrong about the Griselde angle - so wrong, it's laughable! But here's an object lesson for me: the clues Peters provides, even if I should get them, are still for the characters and not for me, whereas literary allusions are for no one but the reader. Reading mysteries, it seems, is a different sort of reading than I'm accustomed to. But I'll learn, I hope, with Mz. Peters as my guide.


Heidenkind said...

I really loved the Brother Cadfael series on Mystery! and I've been meaning to try Peters' books for a while now, but I haven't gotten around to it. They sound just a good (probably even better) as the TV show, though.

Rohan Maitzen said...

OK, you convinced me. I've always avoided these on the assumption they would annoy me as much as most historical mysteries, but I signed the first one out of the library today. :-) Also, Amateur Reader has had some interesting posts recently about historical mysteries over at Wuthering Heights; you might want to put in your 2 cents worth.

Rohan Maitzen said...

"over at Wuthering Heights."

I mean Wuthering Expectations, of course.

Bookphilia said...

heidenkind: I'm planning on watching the shows one of these days - I love Derek Jacobi - but have very little time for tv-watching these days.

Rohan: I knew you meant Wuthering Expectations; in fact, I didn't even notice the error until you pointed it out! So much for my copy editing skills.

I don't think I have much to say about the genre though. For me, historical fiction, what little I've read, is just pure fun and the context for atmosphere only (at least, that's all that really matters to me). And I think our man at WE would be reasonable to expect something more thoughtful than that in his comments. :)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Strangely, after grumping so much about historical mysteries, I'm actually more curious about the Brother Cadfael series and a few others.

Now I have a list of things that I'm looking for - how does Peters address this problem or that one? I'm more interested after taking some of them apart, not less.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: I don't know if there's anything profound to say about the Cadfael mysteries, to be honest. But then I desperately don't want to, so I could be wrong.