Monk’s Hood, by Ellis Peters
The third novel of the Cadfael series , the title of this novel refers both to the means by which a murder takes place, and to the means of disguise for someone falsely accused of that murder. The plot of this novel in some ways hits a little close to home. Cadfael meets a long lost love who becomes widowed again when her much older and wealthier husband dies of poison, with her young and guileless and somewhat fierce-tempered son from an earlier marriage as the prime suspect. Then Cadfael himself, because of his prior relationship with the lovely widow, comes under scrutiny as well and faces a dramatic race against time to free an innocent man and clear his own name because of the fact that it was his own monk’s hood that was used in the murder. Even the happy ending is bittersweet, as a man must act honorably and fulfill his vows despite his love for a woman he can’t have, something that makes me feel sad.
Besides the mystery aspect of this novel, the social viewpoint is striking as well in a couple of ways. Part of the plot of the novel hinges on the difference between English law, which disinherits illegitimate children, and Welsh law, which does not. Cadfael himself is caught in the middle himself, being Welsh by birth, but too cosmopolitan for his home area, and so settled near the border on the English side, yet still sympathetic to his ancestral ways. So too the manor owned by the deceased wealthy Norman lordling is located in Welsh land but ruled over by an English man subject to the jurisdiction of Chester. Even more pointedly, Cadfael reminds his former lady love that she grasped too high to marry a lordling from her native status as a tradesman’s daughter. For all of its egalitarian virtues, these novels are profoundly conservative in the sense that they urge people to marry others in their class, whatever that class may be. At least the novel manages to put down a grabbing and ambitious prior who finds some comeuppance after trying to seize the prerogatives of rule over the abbey where Cadfael resides, so its hostility to social climbing is at least fair in nature.
Ellis Peters (or rather, Edith Pargeter) gets a lot of credit for inventing the historical mystery novel. It is easy to see, reading these novels, why this was an idea that was waiting to happen. For one, the past is a mysterious place, an alien country of different perspectives and ways of life. Yet the past is also similar enough so that we can recognize pieces of ourselves in the desire to clear our names from suspicion for crimes we did not commit while dealing with unfortunate coincidences, or the struggle for honor and freedom, or the inability to escape the repercussions and memories of the past. And yet if the past cannot be escaped, and if one has regrets over how life or relationships could have gone, at least there are people honorable enough not to sabotage the present or future to try to vainly recapture the past. Yet we can behave honorably now, and make the best of the situations we find ourselves in, no matter how mysterious.
 See, for example: