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.