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An Excellent Mystery (1997)

An Excellent Mystery (1997)

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4.17 of 5 Votes: 5
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0446405329 (ISBN13: 9780446405324)
mysterious press

About book An Excellent Mystery (1997)

Again, this volume is unsearchable by title. Searching by title only comes up with multivolume sets. It's necessary to search by ISBN# to come up with the individual volume. [2015--this has apparently been repaired]Too many of the books in this series have the exact same cover picture, especially the ones published by Fawcett Crest. A corpse in an open grassy field, arms outstretched, lying at an angle on its back. The clothes are changed, and that's pretty much it. It's not only a sneaky way to save money, it's misleading. So I might as well say from the start that while a great many people are murdered in this book, it's all offstage. Nobody in Shropshire is murdered, though it seems for a while as if it might be so. The only death in Shropshire is the entirely predictable death of Brother Humilis, from his wounds. I was in two minds whether to explain the title. Peters didn't think she had to, because she assumed her target audience was mostly Anglican. By this time this was not a safe assumption, so she does include a section of the Book of Common Prayer at the end containing the relevant quote. It's not necessary to elaborate, other than to say that the 'excellent mystery' involved is marriage.The book begins in mid-August of 1141. Overwhelming news from southern England soon distracts the attention, so I should say that the book begins with Brother Oswin departing to do his stint at St Giles. Oswin had been almost completely shoved backstage by this point, so it's not surprising that he's moved out of the abbey at this time. Brother Oswin had become too pat a solution for Brother Cadfael's chronic labor shortage. It's not clear that he would do that well at St Giles, but since Brother Mark has already reached the rank of deacon at Lichfield, the odds are pretty good he's not coming back, at least to stay. In The Leper of St Giles it's implied that Oswin is a moron in the technical sense. He's described as being perpetually fixed at the level of a happy child of twelve. He can still function in the monastery environment, if he will allow himself to be instructed: but the odds are he was placed in the monastery itself as a form of sanctuary.But the monasteries were, too often, an inadequate form of sanctuary for those who aren't able to cope with life outside. Brother Urien, introduced in this book, has joined the monastery for an all-too-common reason: bitterly disappointed in love, he hopes for peace in an environment where he's forbidden any expression of sexuality. But he hasn't been, as it's expressed elsewhere, 'purged of the old Adam'. He still has powerful desires, and he was apparently always inclined toward bullying. So he tries sexual harassment of his fellow monks. He doesn't succeed with Rhun, but he has cause to believe he'll have better luck with the young Fidelis, who obviously has something to hide, and might be susceptible to blackmail. I should point out that the homosexual nature of these harassments is almost entirely contingent. Because Urien no longer has close contact with women, he's simply more likely to be in contact with boys and men on a daily basis.Brother Fidelis arrives very early in the story, in company with the badly (ultimately fatally) injured Brother Humilis. They're bringing very bad news from Winchester, and, though they are not able to travel fast, for once they travel faster than anything but wild rumors. Brother Fidelis gives no real account of origins or history: though literate (even in Latin), he's dumb. Cadfael, too prone to meddling, hopes to cure the dumbness: but to do that, he'd have to correctly diagnose the cause.Why Humilis took the name he took as a monk is not clear, at first. What he had to do with humility in his own history is not much. As a de Marescot, he's fairly highly placed socially, and he achieved renown in the Crusades. But he has injuries which are far from healed. I've noted (though not reported) before that there's a tendency in this time to describe wounds as 'healed' even though any stress reopens them. This is especially the case in Brother Humilis' situation. He has suffered terrible wounds, which make it impossible to continue outside a monastery. His retirement to the monastery of Hyde Meade was intended to be essentially hospice care...until Hyde Meade is burnt down, along with most of Winchester, during Empress Maud's siege of Bishop Henry's castle.Now he's returned to the nearest monastery to his birthplace, there to reside, if possible, for the rest of what bodes fair to be an extremely short life. He refuses all medical care for as long as he can. And when he is forced to submit to treatment of his wounds, it's made obliquely clear that part of the wounding included emasculation. The main reason he'd sent to free his betrothed is that he wouldn't want her burdened with his care, but there's also no doubt he couldn't consummate his marriage anymore.So when Nicholas Harnage arrives to ask his lord's permission to pay court to the freed Julian Cruce, Humilis is more than willing...until he finds that Julian is missing, and may have been murdered. Then he curses his own incapacity to search for her, and deputizes anybody who might find her (including Nicholas) to search in his place.There are several points besides the continuing contention between Stephen and Maud in this period that are hinted at in this book, but not detailed. One is that many people changed their names when they came to England--but not always to an English form. The original form of the name in Humilis' case indicates that it's possibly of Italian (maybe Sicilian? The Normans also ruled Sicily for awhile) origin. Another is that there is often contention between the Benedictines and other orders, and between monasteries and the communities they reside amongst, so that any impropriety, however little it has to do with the community, ends up being written up as satirical ballads, and circulated widely.Which latter is one of the main reasons why the situation in the book is very difficult to resolve. When (or if) concealment ends, there's a high likelihood that there'll be scandal, though none of those involved actually intended anything scandalous. So even when the secret is known to a few people in the abbey, there's considerable heartwringing trying to come up with a solution that DOESN'T involve scandal. Those who complain that the book is not exciting enough probably stopped reading before the last chapters. The description of a trip downstream in a small boat in a thunderstorm, complicated by floodwaters from upstream, should be exciting enough for the most discriminating palate.

It's fitting that the middle book of the Cadfael series is the most unique. It's the only book of the series in which no one is killed and the ubiquitous pair of young lovebirds is almost completely absent. Instead of a murder mystery, it's a story of passion, loyalty, justice, service, and devotion. The "excellent mystery" part doesn't kick in until a third to halfway through the book and isn't fully explained until the end. All of the characters are passionate about something, for good or ill, and some more obvious in their passion than others. It wasn't until a scene late in the book of Nicholas single-mindedly seeking Hugh in the pouring rain that I realized he was displaying just as much passion as poor Brother Urien, just about very different things. The final act of the book is very moving and also brilliantly constructed, bringing each character's tangled thread to a conclusion. Happy for some, bittersweet for others, but positive and hopeful all around. And adroitly avoiding a huge scandal, too. Besides, any time mischievous Sister Magdalen (introduced in book 5, The Leper of Saint Giles) is involved, I'm all in!The theme of passion is reflected in the historical events of the time. King Stephen and his cousin Empress Maud were fighting a heated civil war for the crown. The book is set in 1141 and readers are direct and indirect witnesses to the burning of Winchester and Wherwell, the siege and route of Winchester, the Empress's retreat from Queen Mathilda's armies, and the capture of Robert of Gloucester. Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and papal legate, is mentioned often and appears in a brief scene with Nicholas.

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I have read quite a few of the Brother Cadfael series and although still a fun read, I thought this book did not live up to its’ title. It was not a difficult mystery to unravel and I thought it was stronger as a piece of historical fiction than as a mystery. AN EXCELLENT MYSTERY does have lots of great little chestnuts of knowledge about life in twelfth century England and contains characters who actions and reactions although sometimes surprising seem quite real. If you are a fan of the series, you will probably still like this book, but it would not be my recommendation as an introductory tale for the uninitiated.

An Excellent Mystery, a phrase taken from the Solemnization of Matrimony from the Book of Common Prayer, is a great name for this episode in the Cadfael saga though there are no actual weddings here to solemnize.Instead this story deals with a man who becomes betroathed to a much younger girl before departing on crusade. After gaining some fame while on crusade, the man is grievously injured. He breaks the betroathal and joins a Benedictine order as Brother Humilus. His intended bride decides to take the veil as well and journeys under escort to a distant city to do so. Three years later and the civil war sees the man's abbey destroyed and Humilis, with a mute young brother Fidelis in tow, appears in Shrewsbury. A mystery develops when it's discovered tha the man's fiance never made it to her intended abbey. Again, as with so much of Ellis Peters' Cadfael saga the mystery is secondary to the picture we develop of life in that time. It's a bit like watching as a grandmother assembles a jigsaw puzzle from a box with no cover. While we're uncertain of the final picture, the pieces give their clues and the old woman is confident enough that we have no doubt that we'll see the final picture in the end and meanwhile we're content to appreciate the skill with which she assembles it. This one was never adapted for television and that's probably a good thing. Suffice it to say, it's worth the time it takes to read the book, and in the company of Cadfael and a cast of regulars that we've grown to love, it's a satisfying and entertaining journey.

The above description is misleading in two respects: if Cadfael experiences a "crisis of faith" here, it's totally invisible to both him and the readers; and the immediate mystery that claims attention here is the disappearance of Brother Humilis' former fiancee. Several years before, when he left home to fight in the Crusades (before becoming a monk), she set out to apply for admission to a convent. Now, it is learned that she never got there. Was she the victim of foul play? If not, where is she now? And how can these questions be answered when the trail is, by now, very cold?This was actually the first of the Cadfael mysteries that I read. The same general comments about the series that I made in my review of A Morbid Taste for Bones apply to this installment as well. A potential criticism that could be made of this particular book is that, for some readers, the solution to the mystery will be fairly easy to guess --I spotted it quite early on. However, not all readers will deduce this for themselves (my wife didn't); and anyway, part of the fun of reading a mystery is trying to guess the solution --so, if you're able to, that doesn't mean it's not a rewarding mystery.In a subplot here, Pargeter/Peters deals with the issue of same -sex sexual attraction (which was rife in medieval monasteries) in a biblical fashion --that is to say, with clarity about what kinds of conduct are right and wrong, and with compassionate understanding toward individuals tempted by the latter.

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