Edith Pargeter was a remarkably talented author, working in many fields and under many different names. She is best known, certainly, as "Ellis Peters," the author of a fascinating series of historical mysteries set in twelfth century England and starring a Benedictine monk named Brother Cadfael. I must admit that I am a fan of Brother Cadfael - and of Ellis Peters's remarkable writing abilities and her ability to create memorable characters. It has been a decade or more since I last read my favorite Cadfael mystery, one which fully lives up to its title, An Excellent Mystery. I have met other readers who do not care for Peters or for her books. Frankly, I can't understand it - the power of Ellis Peters's storytelling is overwhelming to me. Here, somewhat edited, is what I had to say about An Excellent Mystery after my last reading of it, fully a decade ago:
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In the summer of the year 1141, a civil war is under way in England – a war which, as is often the case in such wars, was brutal and unforgiving towards those caught between the two sides. When their own monastery is destroyed in the fighting, two Benedictine monks ride into the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, near the border with Wales, home to Brother Cadfael, an herbalist and healer and a remarkably able detective. The monks bring with them disturbing news of the war – and a mystery that ultimately threatens the stability of the Benedictine order itself. That is at the heart of Ellis Peters’ novel, An Excellent Mystery.
Ellis Peters was the pen name of a truly remarkable Welsh writer, Edith Pargeter. Under the name Ellis Peters, she wrote two excellent series of novels – one set in modern times, around the exploits of a Scotland Yard detective named George Felse, and the other, far better known, set more than 900 years in the past, featuring the Benedictine monk, Brother Cadfael.
I find myself at a bit of a loss here. I want to tell you enough about the story to intrigue you, and, I hope, to encourage you to find this book and read it. But I hesitate to give away very much of the plot – for this is an excellent mystery indeed, one to savor, and it is only by peeling away the many layers of the plot over the course of this book that we – and Brother Cadfael – come to understand at last the true nature of the mysteries involved here – and why they are so perilous.
Naturally, the two monks who arrive at the abbey are at the center of the mystery. One, an older man, a crusader, badly wounded in the fighting, is remembered and revered locally as a hero, a fair and just man. The other brother, a much younger man, is mute – he cannot speak. But he is totally devoted to the older monk, acting as nurse, attendant, and general assistant.
But it is clear to Cadfael that there is a deeper mystery here. And we soon learn of the apparent disappearance of the woman who was to have been married to the older monk – before he returned, gravely wounded from the crusades, and released her from her vows. All the events of the novel take place within the framework of the civil war under way in England at that time. And before the story has ended, we will find incredibly dangerous new mysteries – ones which, as I noted a moment ago, could even threaten the very existence of Cadfael’s beloved Benedictine order.
It is the writing in this book – and in the other Cadfael mysteries – which, to my mind, set it apart and mark it as great. Peters had a marvelous ear; her descriptions and insights can be breathtaking. This is the opening sentence of the book:
"August came in, that summer of 1141, tawny as a lion and somnolent and purring as a hearthside cat."
Isn’t that a marvelous image? But beyond images, Peters was a master at creating and maintaining suspense. And she plays with our emotions; I found myself moved to tears more than once by her images and the flashes of insight she provides into her characters. As with many of the Cadfael novels, An Excellent Mystery is a love story – a love story involving many people and playing out in unexpected and unpredictable ways, as the story reaches its stunning conclusion. It is also a story of faith, on many levels – for Cadfael believes deeply in his religion and in miracles.
And that is truly all I can say about this book without giving away too much.
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When last I checked, An Excellent Mystery was available in e-book formats, but there also seem to be a fair number of used print copies of the book. Your favorite mystery book specialist should be able to help you, or Amazon's used book dealers appear to have dozens of copies available. As I've said, in my opinion, An Excellent Mystery, by Ellis Peters, is true to its name – an excellent mystery indeed.
You can listen to the original podcast review by clicking here.
Next: The Father Hunt, by Rex Stout.