Visions of Paradise

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Brother Cadfael

As readers of this column probably know, I rarely read contemporary mysteries, but I enjoy historical mysteries when the depth and fascination of the setting trumps the mystery. Books such as Steven Saylor’s Roma Sub Rosa series and Mary Reed & Eric Mayer’s John the Eunuch series (both previously reviewed here) fall into that category.

Another excellent example of this genre–and perhaps the prototype of all of them–is Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mysteries which are set during the same English Civil war as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. But while both works are set in monastery towns, Follett’s epic involves many of the movers and shakers of the civil war, while Peters is primarily concerned with common people undergoing life’s trials and tribulations during the late Middle Ages. St. Peter’s Fair is set during what amounts to a three-day flea market run by the monastery, a common occurrence which was also the setting of one of the important scenes in Pillars.

Brother Cadfael himself is a fascinating character, a former man-of-the-world who became a monk in his forties and has been tending the monastery gardens for the past 16 years. He is very friendly with the under-sheriff of the town whom he helps investigate mysteries, in this instance the murder of one of the merchants at the fair.

St. Peter’s Fair was a very enjoyable book wrapped around the murder and several subsequent crimes. It is a very slow-paced, chatty book, which was fine with me, so that even the last section’s “thriller” was enjoyable, something I rarely say. The overall result is that I am planning to read more of those books, and I will likely put the Derek Jacobi videos on my Christmas list so I can enjoy the medieval setting visually as well.


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