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Friday, September 11, 2009

What I'm re-reading #1: Brother Cadfael

I do an awful lot of reading and reviewing of new books, both for this blog and January Magazine. For all of that, I have some comfort re-reading - Kerry Greenwood, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien. I have decided that every now and then I am going to post something to this site about what I'm re-reading at the time.

Right now, I'm making my way back through the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, AKA Edith Pargeter.

I had known her as Edith Pargeter long before I started reading her history mysteries. She wrote mediaeval historical novels, usually centred around the Welsh border country. There was the Heaven Tree trilogy, the Brothers of Gwynedd, her Hotspur novel, A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury. She was also writing crime fiction as Ellis Peters. What more natural than that she should put the two skills together?

I remember discovering Brother Cadfael, her Welsh monk living in Shrewsbury during the fight between Stephen and Maud for the English throne. Cadfael had gone off to the First Crusade as a man-at-arms and, on his return, had decided to retire into a monastery, where he became the monastery's herbalist. He is very shrewd and observant and has skills the average forensic investigator would value. He had a son from his adventures in the East, who turned up in one of the early novels, The Virgin In The Ice, and then again in the final book in the twenty-novel series. His best friend was the local law enforcer, Hugh Beringar, who started off as a potential villain, but by the end of the first book had become Cadfael's friend, in a classic combination of the amateur sleuth and his buddy the cop. Hugh was assistant Sheriff of Shropshire, then became Sheriff after his boss's death. And, of course, you wouldn't want to be living in Shrewsbury around then, any more than you'd like to live in the county of Midsomer now! Not with all those murders.

I became hooked on the series - while each story had its own mystery to solve, there was the history, the characters and the fact that you cared about them. I gave my mother one of the books to read and at the time, she wasn't interested. Then, on a trip to England in 1988, I took her to Shrewsbury, where I found the description had been so accurate, I actually recognised the streets and layout of the town.

Brother Cadfael had brought plenty of tourists to the quiet, pretty town of Shrewsbury - a place so small you could get around all the tourist sections in an afternoon! Mum and I visited the church of St Peter and St Paul, which had a leaky roof at the time and we were told by one of the parishioners that in winter the heating had to be turned off an hour into the service to save electricity. I have not been back, but I hope things have improved since then and am fully expecting at least one comment on this post to let me know!

When this gentleman saw Mum taking my photo on the steps, he said, "Dare I ask if you're a Brother Cadfael fan?" I smiled and said, "Need you ask?"

After that, he stood with us and pointed out several places mentioned in the novels. It was a delightful trip all round. When we got back, Mum finally decided to read the books to see what all the fuss was about and then bewailed the fact that she had been in Shrewsbury and had not been able to appreciate the Cadfael connection, though she had loved the beauty of the place.

Recently, she told me that she is too stressed at the moment, with family health troubles, to be able to concentrate on any of the new books I had been borrowing for her from the library. I suggested a re-read, which always makes me feel better. I gave her the Cadfael books, which she is presently re-reading with great delight, and now I have started doing it too. It has been so long, I have actually forgotten whodunnit, though not Brother Cadfael, Hugh, Abbot Radulfus, Prior Robert or any of the regulars. It is giving me a lot of pleasure, freeing me from work-related stress for a time, as I join this calm, mild-mannered monk in the mid-eleventh century...

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