St. Peter’s Fair, by Ellis Peters
This book, the fourth of the Cadfael Chronicles , serves as a good place to notice the way in which the various plots of the Cadfael series start to inform each other. This novel has some major threads with previous volumes. For one, it offers a chance to recognize the continuing effects of the anarchy on England, as a major aspect of this novel’s double murder mystery is the desire on the part of unscrupulous men to kill partisans of Empress Maud for information that would gain them influence with King Stephen. For another, it has a beautiful and mysterious young woman whose beauty is intoxicating to young men and who is deeply private, very resourceful, and full of secrets (with a taste for troublesome letters), and also features some of the repercussions of the siege of Shrewsbury in One Corpse Too Many, while also providing Cadfael with an opportunity to trade spycraft with a wily Welsh merchant who feigns ignorance of the English language to gather information for his lord in Wales.
The plot itself is somewhat straightforward. A dispute over funds from St. Peter’s fair leads to a riot where a young man is knocked out by a leading merchant from Bristol, only to be saved by his beautiful raven-haired daughter. From there, there is misdirection as a Chester lordling woos his quarry and leads her into believing that such a nobleman would be willing to marry a beautiful merchant orphan. As usual, Cadfael and assistant Sheriff Beringer, whose wife is pregnant, are deep on the trail of dangerous deeds conducted for political advantage, while a young man acts nobly and gallantly for a young woman who views him only as a friend and nothing more. It is a gripping and satisfying novel, a worthy mystery yarn full of romance and peril.
Here too, we see parallels about the danger of courting someone outside of one’s class. These novels seem to assume that people from lower classes will find themselves exploited by elites if they seek to rise above their own status, and that being discontented with one’s natural place will lead to all kinds of disorder and the potential for dangerous criminality. Also of interest is the way in which this novel shows parents in a good light, in bemoaning the disorderly conduct of their wayward children rather than enabling such conduct, in the initial riot, as well as the fact that it shows the new head of Cadfael’s abbey, Abbot Radulfus, to be an immensely canny person, seeking to protect the rights of his monestary, look after the people who come as honored guests, and to show proper concern for the well-being of the larger community as well. All in all, this an excellent book full of intriguing layers and very insightful character insights along with a gripping plot.
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