Book Review: The Sanctuary Sparrow

The Sanctuary Sparrow, by Ellis Peters

The title character in the seventh [1] Brother Cadfael mystery novel is a young man who escapes from a lynch mob by claiming the right of sanctuary at the abbey where Cadfael lives, after he is falsely accused of theft and murder after being cheated out of his fair wages for singing and playing a version of the viol at a wedding feast for a greedy family of merchants. He is an honest and decent young man whose life has been full of abuse and difficulty, a vagabondish existence where he falls in love with the first young lady who happens to be kind to him. Unlike some unfortunate people, she loves him back, and he finds safety in the sanctuary where he goes to escape trouble. Not everyone who seeks sanctuary is so fortunate to have a forty day grace period to avoid trouble, sadly.

This novel is a mystery in another sense too, in that the story is far progressed before there is even a murder to investigate, before culminating in a dramatic ending with people who think they have nothing to lose and who are ruthless in seeking to defend their interest and claim what they view as theirs. The tension between a love of money and a love of family, and that which threatens both, is present here. Among the more villainous characters in a novel that has plenty of dark people is a seemingly mousy and unlovely wife who uses emotional blackmail to keep her unfaithful new husband loyal after he is exposed and considered a suspect in a murder for sneaking out to enjoy a dalliance with a money-hungry and flirtatious wife of an often-distant merchant. Of course, when bad things keep on happening to the family, it does not take long to figure out that this is not by chance, but by malign design.

Over and over again this play looks at similar issues of love and marriage, of love outside of marriage, of marriages without love, of the bargains and price that people pay to be with those they love, about how the search for love leads some people to be noble and leads others to be petty and destructive. Likewise, some people love peace and quiet more than being just and honorable to others, while others are simply in love with solving mysteries and cannot help but seek to be helpful to those they meet. This is a compelling mystery, one that involves the law and family, and a hope that nice people need not be secretly dark or evil, but really be nice and kind people inside and out. Such could be the material of our lives, if we lived in a kind enough sanctuary, like that of this novel. Not all of us are so fortunate, alas, to live in a novel that is written by someone who wants a happy love story in it, even if it is full of drama and peril. At least there is the payoff to make this fiction enjoyable to read, even if it does at times hit a little close to the desire for sanctuary some people feel even now.

[1] See, for example:

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