7.4.11

Ellis Peters's Monk's-Hood


Ellis Peters’s series, Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, is set in twelfth-century Shrewsbury, England. Peters (real name Edith Pargeter) was a prolific writer who lived near Shrewsbury her entire life. In addition to the 40 mystery novels she wrote, Peters also translated numerous books from Czechoslovakian. In 1993, she won the coveted Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement. Peters worked as a pharmacist’s assistant for seven years. Like Agatha Christie who worked in the same occupation, Peters acquired a solid grounding in drugs and poisons, indispensable knowledge for a mystery novelist. The Brother Cadfael mysteries began in 1977; the last one was published in 1994, a year before Peters’s death. Several novels in the series were filmed for the BBC Mystery Series.

Monk’s-Hood, the third book in the chronicles, won the prestigious Silver Dagger Award in 1981. The book begins during an unsettled political time, a period that directly affects the management of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul. After the Abbot is summoned to the King’s court, a guest at the monastery is poisoned with a dose from Brother Cadfael’s supply. Cadfael realizes that the murdered man’s wife (Richalis) was his fiancĂ© forty years ago. Richalis, who had tired of waiting for Cadfael to return from the Crusades, married, gave birth to a child, and then remarried after her first husband died. The son, who was disinherited by his stepfather, is immediately suspected of murder. Richildis turns to Cadfael in the hope that he will defend her son.

One of the greatest appeals of the book is the character of Brother Cadfael. An ex-soldier turned monk, Cadfael is the engaging amateur detective of the novel. Leading a full life before joining the monastery, he draws upon both secular and spiritual experience as crusader, soldier, sailor, monk, herbalist, and healer to interpret human behaviour and solve mysteries. As a figure of worldly wisdom and spiritual insight, Cadfael is a beacon of light in a world of injustice and ignorance. As Dean James suggests:
Cadfael observes all that occurs with a benign and forgiving eye for the foibles and iniquities of humankind, and it is this spirit of charity, in the truest Christian sense, which lends such a remarkable feeling of warmth and humanity to the work of Peters. Readers trust in Cadfael to have the wisdom and compassion to do everything within his power to set the disordered situation to rights.
As herbalist and healer, Cadfael is a mediator and conciliator in a place filled with divisions, strife, and bitter rivalries. He unites the segregated and heals the broken.

The clerical detective is not a new figure in mystery stories. This figure provides a moral compass in the criminal worlds of the detective novel. Father Brown in Chesterton’s stories, the vicar in Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, and the curate in Perry’s A Christmas Mystery embody a spiritual perspective and certainty of vision that acts as a counterbalance to the dark world around them. (See my posts on these works by Chesterton, Christie, and Perry.) All these clerics inspire us with their deep sense of integrity, honour, and decency. They focus on divine justice, and are more willing than secular detectives to extend forgiveness and mercy to criminals.

Peters has said that “human needs and motives and passions have not changed very much” over the centuries (Christian and Lindsey 1991, 3). Because her historical mysteries stress the continuities of human nature, they are very accessible to modern readers. Peters brings the medieval world to life through her convincing portrayal of rounded, complex characters. In Monk’s-Hood, we sympathize with the murderer who is himself gravely wronged. We also see that the honoured abbot is not flawless; he enjoys the disappointment of a rival at the end of the novel.

One of the most appealing aspects of the novel is the historical setting. Peters animates the medieval world, interweaving historical details into the mystery. The murder is fittingly set within the context of petty monastery feuding, itself affected by the political rivalries of the English court.

“Appropriately leisurely pace, meticulous historical detail, nicely humane characters” is The Times final verdict on the novel (1980). Combining the historical mystery and the religious crime novel, Monk’s-Hood is charming, engaging, and instructive.

Christian, Ed and Blake Lindsey. “Detecting Brother Cadfael: An Interview with Ellis Peters, 17 August 1991.” Clues 14, no. 2 (1993): 1-29.

Keating, H. R. F. “Crime.” The Times. September 18, 1980.

Peters, Ellis, Monk’s-Hood. 1980. London: Futura, 1984.