Another entry in my 26-Week Book Challenge, and I have now officially exceeded the supposed limit suggested by the title, because this is entry number 27. Yes, I’ll do anything to write a weekly blog post, including devoting a number of weeks to a question which I said I wouldn’t answer. This is not one of those weeks though, because this week I’m talking about a series I wish had gone on longer.
Now, I have no idea whether this series is even known in the US, but in Britain I’m sure most people will have heard of it at least. They may not have read the books, but they might have seen some of the television episodes with Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael.
For the uninitiated, Brother Cadfael is a Welsh monk who lives at Shrewsbury Abbey in the twelfth century, right in the middle of The Anarchy, the war between King Stephen and Empress Maude. Maude was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror, and the person with the most legitimate claim to the throne of England, but she was a woman, so many people preferred to see her cousin Stephen take the throne. In the midst of this turmoil the law is often hard to find, and Cadfael takes it upon himself to solve the various murders he happens across in his daily life. This is possible because, despite being a Benedictine monk, he is a healer of some renown and therefore has more freedom to leave the monastery than most monks do. He is also much more worldly than most monks, since he was a crusader and has been to the holy land and back before he took his vows.
All these books are, in essence, murder mysteries. Usually someone is killed and there is an obvious murderer, but Cadfael never takes things at face value and often stands up for those initially accused, then subsequently solves the murder and finds the real perpetrator. As mysteries go they are neither fiendishly clever nor easy to solve (at least not for me), but I have always found the books to be a very easy read with a satisfying resolution at the end.
This could be said of a lot of murder mystery series, I suppose, but for me this one stands out for two reasons. The first one is that in most of these books the mystery plot is interwoven with a romance plot. There is almost always a couple involved, either because one of them (usually the man) is the one accused of murder or because one of them is somehow a victim of the circumstances (often the woman). Anyone who has followed me for a while knows that I love my romance, so to me those storylines add an extra dimension to the read that make me more invested in the characters.
The second reason is because these books manage to do that rarest of things: they involve religion without being preachy. Cadfael is a devout man of God, but is happy enough to let God sort out the things he doesn’t understand and use his own wits for the things he does. He has also been out in the world long enough to know that God isn’t the answer to everything, and that not everyone is cut out for a life of worship, and he has spent enough time among the Saracens to know that they are people like everyone else. In all he has a very modern view on religion while retaining his own faith, and while you could question the validity and probability of such a man existing in twelfth century England, it makes him a very likeable and understandable man to modern readers.
I’ve seen a number of people on forums I visit complaining about series, saying that they have stopped reading series because they take so long to complete, and they can’t be bothered to wait for that final resolution. Whilst I cannot understand a mindset like that (if I had that attitude I’d never have read either the Gentleman Bastards series nor A Song of Ice and Fire, both of which would have been a major loss), series such as this one are the solution for people like that. Not because this one is finished (though it is), but because each book is a self-contained story and can be read completely separate from any of the others in the series. There are recurring characters, of course, such as the smarmy, sanctimonious Brother Jerome, ambitious Prior Robert, and Cadfael’s friend Hugh Beringar, but not knowing who they are barely detracts from the stories.
I personally have always loved series like that. I like reading a complete story, but knowing that the characters I have come to like will return in a future book. This is one reason why I have modeled my own novels in a similar way – the protagonists of The Ritual return in The Conspiracy in a minor role, and the same happens with the protagonists of The Conspiracy, who will return in The Coup. As a reader it means I can see what happens to them next, which is especially satisfying if they thrive and are happy. (Though sometimes it does work best to not have them return – see Mort and Ysabel in Discworld, who needed to die to give Susan room.)
I cannot remember whether Cadfael finished because Ellis Peters died, or whether she just felt she had no more stories left to tell about him. The last book in the series has enough closure for me to suspect the latter, but either way the point is moot since Peters died in 1995. Still, this is a wonderful series where good always triumphs over evil, people can marry for love (even if this seems a rare occurrence in the middle ages), and a monk can be religious without being preachy. And lastly? You get a wonderful range of old English and Welsh names pass by, which sound far more musical than the Steves and Davids of today. My favourites are still Meriet and Angharad.