Monday, October 4, 2010

rediscovering Brother Cadfael, medieval monk-detective

Over the summer, I embarked on a mini-project to get to know the mystery/thriller genre better. And by that what I really mean is I decided to go back and read all the Brother Cadfael books (I threw in a couple other mysteries here and there, to be well-rounded).

For those who have missed Brother Cadfael up until now, he is a 12th-century Welsh Crusader-turned-Benedictine monk with a big heart and a knack for happening upon and investigating murders. Ellis Peters, who was also an academic and Czech translator, was painstaking in her creation of the medieval abbey of St Peter and St Paul, its environs, and its characters, and the whole mystery series is rich in historical detail--perfect for armchair time-travelers. The series, which was published between 1977 and Peters's death in 1994, includes 20 books (to the best of my counting... there are a couple of associated stories, too). The mysteries are pretty feel-good in the sense that they are, for the most part, peopled with loving and well-meaning characters, and there are generally happy threads of true love that emerge over the course of the book.

My plan is to make it through the whole series sequentially (not skipping around to "the good ones" like my father does). For now, here is a brief synopsis of each of the first two.

The first mystery in the series is set in 1135, when ambition seizes the quiet abbey of St Peter and St Paul in Shrewsbury (an English town very close to the Welsh border). The abbey has no holy relics or resident saints of its own, and in order to encourage the flow of pilgrims and patronage the abbot okays a quest into Wales to bring back the bones of St Winifred, a martyred virgin whose Welsh village has mostly neglected. The monks set out on an ostensibly simple operation to dig up the bones and bring them back. Brother Cadfael, who has grave misgivings about this venture and the motive behind it, is forced along as a translator. Unfortunately, his misgivings are well-founded; the village of Gwytherin is not keen on the idea of letting a bunch of English monks make off with their "little saint." Tensions between the monkish delegation and the Welsh villagers are coming to a head when the local lord--and chief opponent to the monk's scheme--is discovered murdered.

The second Brother Cadfael mystery takes place three years after the first, in the midst of the chaotic civil war between Queen Maud, who has fled her lands under duress, and King Stephen, the usurper. Peters plays off of the real historical event of King Stephen's siege of Shrewsbury castle for her mystery--after the battle, Brother Cadfael is chosen for the sad task of blessing the bodies of the 94 men who were hanged for resisting the siege. Alas, Cadfael counts 95 bodies where there should only be 94, and some closer scrutiny reveals that one of the young men wasn't hanged at all--he was strangled by hand, and his body dumped into the pile of resisters so that a murderer can disguise his crime as a war casualty. Luckily Brother Cadfael is more observant.

For those who are big nerds like me and were wondering if, after reading each of these books and then forcing my roommate to read them as well so we could compare notes, I subsequently went and rented the BBC video adaptation to watch and compare further notes, the answer is obviously yes. And while I enjoyed the movies (again--I'd seen them all before), the movies felt rather pale in comparison to the books. For A Morbid Taste for Bones in particular I found my tolerance for hokey adaptation tested. Apparently the producers thought the Welsh names would be too much for viewers, as several key characters were renamed, and (more frustratingly) several great plot elements were made less interesting in order to give Cadfael more screen time. One Corpse Too Many was more faithful and a little better executed (weirdly, as it was made two years earlier). In any case, we enjoyed both watching the movies and griping about why we liked the books better. A very satisfying activity for anyone who delights in purism!

Any other series fans out there?


stacy said...

I had only heard of these when Bernita Harris mentioned them on her blog. I picked one up recently but haven't had a chance to read it yet.

moonrat said...

Oh yeah! Now that you mention it, I remember Bernita's writing about Cadfael. Well, when you get around to reading, stop back and let me know your thoughts! They're definitely for a particular type of reader--if you're into really pacy thrillers, you might not like them. My mom, who's a major mystery buff, doesn't love them; my dad does.

Jane Steen said...

I've watched the series and listened to some of the books on audiobook, but oddly enough I've never read the series. Darn you, Moonrat, now you've given me another reading idea.

I also credit Ellis Peters for my discovery of the Amelia Peabody series. I was looking for an audiobook to listen to many years ago and I decided to listen to a Cadfael book because I'd spotted Ellis Peters' name on a list. Except that I hadn't, because I obviously needed glasses and the name was Elizabeth Peters. Fortunately her story hooked me in the first five minutes and I kept listening, thus discovering a whole new series to follow.

I wish that would happen more often.

moonrat said...

hahaha Jane that made me actually laugh out loud.

Hamilcar Barca said...

i read The Leper of St. Giles a couple months ago, which was my introduction to the Brother Cadfael series.

i thought it was a well-written cozy, and now three more of the series are on my TBR shelf.

stacy said...

I will, Moonrat. Thanks!

Kit said...

We've got quite a few of them on the shelf and I go through stages of re-reading them. I'm definitely in the armchair time-traveller category, as the mystery is often less important to me than living a space in that time.
Much meatier is her trilogy under a different name - The Heaven Tree series written as Edith Pargeter. Have you read those?

moonrat said...

ooo, no. I suppose I should, eh?! thanks for the rec!