An Excellent Mystery, by Ellis Peters
The eleventh book in the Brother Cadfael series , this book is different from much of the series in that it actually does not involve a murder at its heart. To be sure, the context of the book has a lot of death and destruction as a result of fighting around the city of Winchester, fighting that sends a grievously wounded Benedictine monk into the Abbey in Shrewsbury with his mute and devoted companion. Indeed, it is the dying man who prompts so much concern, as a younger fellow wishes to court the young woman the aged and infirm former crusader released from her engagement when he was wounded to such an extent that his death was sure, without hope of fathering children, and it is the fact that she has gone missing, with a trail cold for three years, that spurs this novel, with an elegant and deeply touching solution, that spurs on the plot of this novel.
At its heart, this is a novel about devotion. A longtime servant is devoted to the well-being of a young lady, even if it risks him prison. A young woman devotedly serves her fiance, without his knowing, unwilling to be cast aside even if he cannot perform the duty of a husband. A young novice monk honorably protects an older monk from despair after feeling guilty over an obsessive attraction. A young knight is devoted to the young woman cast off by the dying knight, unwilling to rest until he has found her. Then there is the devotion of the Queen of England to her imprisoned husband, and the loyalty of the sheriff to that same king. All of these loyalties make for a complicated mixture of behavior that threatens the honor and reputation of Cadfael’s beloved Abbey and the Benedictine order as a whole, and it takes all of Cadfael’s discretion to make sure that everyone who knows what is going on has good enough reason to stay silent.
Indeed, silence too is at the heart of this novel, whether that silence is done in order to avoid lying, or avoid causing harm and scandal. I could feel the pain of love all too deeply in this novel, which has a a grace that is truly deeply wounded and broken. Oh, that we could recognize such love in our own lives as this book has, that we could be so noble and risk so much, and be so richly rewarded for our pains. For all too often our hearts are wasted foolishly and we do not receive a good reward for all of our worries and anxieties. Yet here, in the realm of fiction, we can see that everything does turn out alright, and justly, with a kind authorial providence, even in the face of risks as grave as warfare, rape, and the ravages of nature, time, and injury. With so much going on, it is little wonder that this novel strikes so close to home.
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