One fine writer of traditional mysteries to whom, I think, I should pay more attention is the late Ellis Peters, the author of the enormously popular Brother Cadfael series of historical mysteries set in twelfth century England. Peters is a marvelous storyteller, and her books are as powerful in the writing as they are in their plots. This holds true as well for another series of books which she wrote before the Cadfael series, featuring policemen George Felse. You don't know those books? You should. I haven't reviewed that many of her books, which, I think now, may be an oversight on my part. Here's what I had to say about one of my favorites, Black is the Colour of my True Love's Heart, when I reviewed it on the Classic Mysteries podcast several years ago - as usual, somewhat edited:
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There is an old, and quite beautiful, English folk ballad called “Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair.” It is a gentle love song which has been recorded by a variety of individuals and groups, and it is very much the kind of song you might expect to hear at an academic folk festival. But the listeners attending the festival at a place called Follymead were surprised when a visiting singer changed the lyrics – to “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Heart.” Perhaps it was a message for someone in the audience. Eventually, it would lead to tragedy – and a police investigation – in Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Heart, by Ellis Peters.
Mystery readers are undoubtedly familiar with Ellis Peters as the author of the excellent historical mystery series featuring Brother Cadfael, set in the twelfth century. But between 1951 and 1978, before she wrote her novels about Cadfael, Ellis Peters wrote a series of 13 contemporary classic mysteries featuring Detective Inspector George Felse, some of which, happily, are now available as e-books – for they are excellent novels and quite good mysteries.
One of those is Black Is the Coluor of My True Love’s Heart, first published in 1967. It is set in a folk music seminar and festival at a place called Follymead, a strange old house now being used as a setting for mostly academic gatherings. Among the invited guests are a ballad singer, a woman named Liri Palmer, and a male folksinger, Lucien Galt, a sullen but immensely talented individual. Among the audience of paying guests are Dominic Felse – the son of Detective Inspector George Felse – and Dominic’s girlfriend, Tossa Barber.
It is immediately obvious that there is some deep tension between Liri Palmer and Lucien Galt. And perhaps that is why, when called on to sing at the opening session of the festival, Liri Palmer alters the words of the song, to “Black is the color of my true love’s heart.” Ellis Peters, who writes marvelous descriptive passages throughout all her books, describing the characters, places, and events, tells us the immediate effect of the song on the audience this way:
An achingly sweet voice, so rending in its sweetness as to corrode like an acid when she used it like this, as if all the frightening possibilities of her nature, for good or evil, could be molten in the furnace of her feeling, and pour out in that fine-spun thread of sound to purify or poison. She sang with such superb assurance that they all accepted it as the only rightness, only realizing afterwards how she had changed words to her own purposes, and torn the heart out of the song to leave it the antithesis of what it was meant to be. As if she turned the coin of love to show hate engraved in an almost identical design.
With that description, Peters draws us into the audience and prepares us for the events to come. For there will soon be a disappearance. The people in charge at Follymead are reluctant to call in the police, so Dominic offers to call in his father, a detective inspector with the local police, to conduct an initial, low-key investigation into the disappearance.
Inspector Felse does come to Follymead and begin his investigation. It becomes obvious pretty quickly that there is a great deal going on under the surface and out of sight of most of the people at the festival. And when tragedy is confirmed, and the investigation becomes official, Inspector Felse continues to keep things very much under control, avoiding the bad publicity which could permanently ruin the reputation of Follymead and ruin the lives of many of those involved.
I don’t want to say much more about the plot twists, for there are a fair number of them – and if we can see some of them coming, it is because they do fit the mold of a classic mystery story. There are a number of clues, and we are given some of them even before Inspector Felse gets them. Ellis Peters wrote these novels, as she later would write the Cadfael novels, with the ability to force the reader to become involved emotionally with the people in the book. We feel very deeply about the characters, as they gradually reveal themselves. Most are quite complex, not at all two-dimensional, and our initial judgments about many of them may prove misguided. I found this book to have a powerful emotional appeal, and I think the reader will wind up caring a great deal about the characters and situations revealed in Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart. If you enjoyed Ellis Peters’ novels about Brother Cadfael and the 12th century, by all means try her contemporary crime classics about Inspector George Felse.
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You can listen to the original audio review from the Classic Mysteries podcast by clicking here.
Next week: The Case of the Late Pig, by Margery Allingham.