An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters

There are 20 or so Brother Cadfael books, and the excellent mystery here is that I’ve no idea how many of them I have read. I’ve watched the TV series twice (it’s on Britbox), and I’ve heard a fair few of the radio adaptations (superior to the TV series – casting Jacobi as Cadfael is like casting Cruise as Jack Reacher — preposterous!). So I’m very familiar with the various stories, though not all of them have been adapted. The ones I have read, I seem to have read on Kindle Unlimited (of which I am no longer a member), so no records survive.

All of which was quite frustrating when I saw that all of the Cadfaels were 99p on the Kindle store the other day. So I plumped for one about halfway through the series, #11, An Excellent Mystery, and the one after that.

Cadfael is a 12th Century monk at the time of The Anarchy. A couple of generations after the Norman conquest, and there’s a dispute over the succession, a civil war with two confusingly named queens and a king. A lot of sound and fury which ended up signifying nothing. Too many Henrys, too many Matildas. Even though “King Stephen” seemed to win the war in the end, it was the son of his rival, the Empress Matilda, who ended up being the next king.

So that was all worth it. Peters makes things less confusing by referring to the Empress by her nickname Maud: because of course King Stephen was married to another Matilda, the Queen.

The whole point of calling this civil war the Anarchy I think (apart from the national pretence that we only had the one civil war) was that the people of England just got on with things and governed themselves because the so-called leaders were busy throwing axes at each other.

Cadfael is an elderly monk who turned to holy orders late in life. He was a knight in the crusades, and has come back with some expertise in the various ways people can die. For his work at the Benedictine monastery in Shrewsbury he potters in his herbarium and makes potions and infusions. Every now and then, a dead body turns up, or someone tries to commit a fraud, and Cadfael steps in.

There are lots of things to like about these books. Ellis Peters is a great writer, for a start, with an elegiac, lyrical narrative voice that pulls you into the twelfth century world and slows down the pace of your heart to the rhythm of this world of annual fayres, sheep markets and Lammas plums, with an eye out for willow bark tea, monkshood, vetch, woundwort, bryony and wintergreen. And your canonical hours here pass at the rhythms of the monastery: matins, prime, vespers, compline. You travel on foot, or at walking pace on the back of a mule, or by water, at the speed of the river Severn.

It takes four days to get to Winchester, which was until recently the capital city, and it’s from Winchester that two monks arrive in Shrewsbury at the beginning of An Excellent Mystery. The war has reached the city, and their church and monastery has been burned, the monks scattered. One of the two carries a wound, the other us unable to speak but can both read and hear perfectly well.

I won’t say more. The reader will solve the mystery fairly quickly, but the pleasure is in the reading, and part of the joy is that events will play out at the correct pace, no matter how quickly you guess the truth. Be patient, be humble, and enjoy the journey. Like quite a lot of these books, there is much that remains unspoken; Cadfael’s solution often comes down to keeping secrets, to turning a blind eye, and deciding that what God knows, men need not know. An example from one of the earlier books: the monastery’s reliquary contains not the bones of a Welsh saint, as everyone thinks, but some other bones that Cadfael put there.

It’s a great lesson to those of us who tend to blurt things out: sometimes saying nothing is the answer, and it is in the hearts of those who do not speak that we see the good.

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