Thursday, April 2, 2009

Monks and Murder

One appeal of historical mysteries is that they boil the genre down to its basics. In an historical mystery, there’s no access to advanced science. No DNA—no fingerprints—no testing for gunpowder residue. The detective investigating a crime has only his wits and good, old-fashioned deductive reasoning to help him catch the guilty and help the innocent.

One of the best-known and most successful historical mystery series is Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. Set in 12th Century England, the series plops its hero into a series of complex and intriguing mysteries.

Cadfael is a fun character—a former soldier and sailor who entered the Benedictine order late in life. Now he is steward of the monastery gardens near the town of Shrewsbury. And when villainy raises its ugly head, Cadfael uses his brains, his exceptional powers of observation and his keen appreciation of human nature to help figure out who committed what crimes.

St. Peter’s Fair (1981) is a fine example of the series. The fair is an annual event that brings a lot of merchants (and hence a lot of money) to Shrewsbury. But, with the town still recovering from getting caught in the middle of a recent civil war, the townspeople and the monks disagree about who should profit from the tolls and levies. This leads to a small riot. Soon after that, a merchant is found stabbed to death.

Initially, the evidence seems to point to the son of one of the town leaders. But Cadfael and his friend, deputy sheriff Hugh Beringar, have their doubts about that. What follows is a very well-constructed mystery. Clues are gradually found as several other crimes—including another murder—occur and Cadfael is eventually able to put everything together into a solution that seems to explain everything. But has he done so soon enough to prevent yet another killing?

Medieval England is a neat setting for a mystery series to start with. The fair creates a plausible reason for bringing different characters together and creating motives both mercenary and political that might explain the crimes being committed. Adding to the strong plot is the fact that Cadfael is the world’s nicest guy—a man who understands that service to God includes service to his fellow man and a deep desire for justice. He’s one of the genre’s most appealing heroes and his presence at St. Peter’s Fair makes the place well worth a visit.

Next time, we’ll jump into some hard-boiled adventure with Dashiell Hammett's two interlocking short stories "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money."

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