The twelfth novel in the Brother Cadfael series, I read this one a bit out of order , but it was not too much of a loss because this particular novel was not referenced in the other two that I read. In a long series such as this one, by the time one has read more than a dozen books, there is a sense of familiarity with the characters and the pleasure of spending time with a friend that one has spent more than a couple dozens of hours with. By that time, one knows someone, even a fictional person, pretty well, and when that person is as likeable and enjoyable as Brother Cadfael, one does not begrudge the time that is spent. As is to be expected in a series of mystery novels, there will be twists and turns and elaborations to prevent the familiarity from becoming too stale.
These changes are worth reflecting upon at least in brief. For example, this novel is very rare so far in being a murder without a mystery. There is a mysterious death, with almost too many people who would want the person dead, and there is political intrigue, but there is no guilty party to a murder. As one of the more taciturn characters of this novel says, this was not a murder, it was justice. Here we see a dark shift in Cadfael himself. Before this novel, Cadfael seems somewhat lighthearted as a detective, despite his human frailties and increasing age. Here he starts to forget, struggling to pull together all of the threads of the case (both literally and figuratively) and starts to brood somewhat heavily on the complicated loyalties he is involved in, what he chooses to be curious about, and what he does not want to know about at all.
Even more than the rest of the series, so far at least, this novel is a deep reflection on the relationship between justice and mercy. There is a lot of death and drama here that is laid at the door of the deceased abbot of the foregate church that is attached to the abbey but serves the local community. A young woman commits suicide in despair after being denied communion by the dead priest because she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter. She is portrayed as a sweet girl who has trouble saying no to guys and bearing the shame of it. Another child dies and is denied burial in consecrated ground because he was not baptized, and he was not baptized because that same priest refused to interrupt his own private devotions to baptize a frail infant who was recognized to be sickly. Another free tenant of the church is accused of being a serf because of some of the tenancies his relatives took on in the absence of their own land. Another tenant has his land stolen temporarily by the same priest being overzealous in expanding church property by moving boundary stones. Yet another person, whose moral life is questionable and who is accused of the murder because he lied about his whereabouts on a night when he was sleeping with a girl described as a slut and a slattern (in an uncomfortable example of “slut shaming” by the book’s female author), is accused by the priest of shortchanging the weight of bread he bakes.
The moral viewpoint of the author, which comes extremely close to my own, is given in the funeral eulogy for the dead priest on page 194 of the version I read: “For even the pursuit of perfection may be sin, if it infringes on the rights of another soul. Better to fail a little, by turning aside to lift up another, than to pass by him in haste to reach our own reward, and leave him to solitude and despair. Better to labour in lameness, than to stride forward alone. Again, it is not enough to abstain from evil, there must also be an outgoing goodness. The company of the blessed may extend justifiably to embrace even men who have been great sinners, yet also great lovers of their fellow men, such as have never turned away their eyes from other men’s needs, but have done them such good as they might, and as little harm as they must. For in that they saw a neighbor’s need, they saw God’s need, and as he himself has shown us, and inasmuch as they saw a neighbor’s face more clearly than their own, so they also saw God’s face.” Oh, that we may not only love our brethren here on earth in word, but also in deed, to recognize their needs, and to respond to them with kindness rather than with cruelty and severity, as is so often the case.
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