Monday, May 9, 2011

Saint Peter's Fair by Ellis Peters

We went on vacation. Last year, for this vacation, one of the days was a thunderstorm day. We spent the entirety of it ensconced in the camper, reading. It also helped that I was on antibiotics and miserable and not wanting to get out and hike, especially in the rain, so the reading felt like a reprieve. I read three books that day, for a total of five over the whole vacation.

This year I planned accordingly, and our combined reading material looked like this:

I remind you this is a five day trip, the overriding aim of which is hiking outdoors and watching birds (which was, I must say, extremely successful this year.)

I read one book. I read part of another one (Crocodile on the Sandbank, which turned out to be just on this side of too light for the brain, especially seeing as I knew exactly what was coming) and then switched to what turned out to be the perfect choice: the next Brother Cadfael mystery.

Saint Peter's Fair
by Ellis Peters
Macmillan, 1981
324 pages

I have to confess, this is another book I'd started before and put back down again. For whatever reason, it just wasn't grabbing me, and I'll say right off the top that I don't think this is one of the best in this series I've read. That's not to say it's not thoroughly enjoyable. There were just a few things that stretched credibility well beyond my comfort zone this time.

The basic plot, without any spoilers: the abbey's annual Saint Peter's Fair is gearing up for what looks to be a successful year after a missed year due to the seige reported in One Corpse Too Many. However, the townsfolk, still struggling with major infrastructure problems after the battles, are unhappy that they see no direct part in the tithes and levies that come from the lucrative fair. When a visiting merchant strikes down one of the town's young men (an unfortunate, though not fatal, event) a riot breaks out. Brother Cadfael is, of course, in the thick of it. Then, later that night, the merchant goes missing and is found the next day, the victim of what appears to be a simple street robbery. But the pieces don't add up, some people know quite a lot more than they're telling, and the hunt is on for the perpetrators of the crime as the situation escalates.

As I commented to fishy at one point, I had the mystery (somewhat) solved by the time the murdered man was found, which is to say within the first fifty pages. This isn't ideal, with these books -- at least not in the way it happened here. The one I've enjoyed the most is One Corpse Too Many and that was in large part because I was completely in the dark about the murderer and even the motive for most of the book, despite the foreshadowing that was skillfully employed. I was still definitely in the dark about the motive on this one, as was our intrepid monk. What surprised me, though, and felt out of character, is that Brother Cadfael is normally so infallible at reading character -- and he missed this one completely even when I, as the reader, knew something was wrong. Same with the deputy sherrif, who is as sharp as one could hope in official law. Also, Brother Cadfael felt very much an observer rather than an active solver of this mystery, which also felt out of character. I don't think this is a problem with Cadfael so much as a problem with the plot and other characters, which points to it being an author misstep.

What I missed most, though, was the warmth of feeling I've had for many of the characters in these books in the past. I am not sure whether this was me, or the long break between this book and the last, or that the characters really did read less like people and more like cutouts in a template.

All of that said, this was still an extremely enjoyable way to spend a couple of evenings. I think I am only slightly dissatisfied because the previous entries in the series were so good. The historical part is still fascinating, with the sweeping political landscape -- the part of history that most of us are familiar with, the lives of the grand people -- providing a backdrop for the convincing detail of the lives of the little people. We are becoming familiar with some of the townspeople, and time is passing; characters enter and leave Cadfael's life in the way one would expect a small town and abbey to work. The plot, though I could easily see the bones of it, had enough meat to keep me engaged through the end.

Overall, I wouldn't necessarily start with this one if you've never read a Brother Cadfael mystery, and I wouldn't necessarily have wept to have missed it. But it provided the kind of read I needed at the moment, and I'll quite happily pick up the next in the series on the strength of the three preceeding books.

Earlier books in the Brother Cadfael chronicles:

1. A Morbid Taste for Bones
2. One Corpse Too Many
3. Monk's-Hood


Anastasia @ Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog said...

Ugh, never a good start to a mystery book when you've figured out the answer within the first couple of chapters. I'm glad you still enjoyed it, even after such a bad start!

Unknown said...

It's funny, because normally it would bother me a lot more. Here I was just vaguely disappointed, I think because I do generally like the characters and the setting so much. I think the obviousness of the villain was part of the reason I couldn't get into this book the first time I tried, but I'm glad I kept going this time because it was fun.

Jeanne said...

I read all the Brother Caedfael mysteries in one great gulp while nursing my first child, so I still can't tell one from another. The paperbacks were all the right size to hold up with one hand.

Unknown said...

Ha! Awesome. I could see how that might lead to a blur, for several reasons. They seem to be similar enough as it is. But perfect reads for that period, I would think -- comforting and interesting and not to taxing on the synapses.

I wonder if nursing women will have an easier reading time of it with e-readers available? A Kobo or a Nook looks like it could be operated pretty easily with one hand.

Unknown said...

Gar. Blogger lost my comment, which was along these lines (if you hadn't read it yet!): I think the Cadfael mysteries would be perfect for breastfeeding purposes -- light but not entirely without substance, entertaining, easy to follow. I can also see how they would quite easily all blend together!

I was also wondering how well something like a Kobo or a Nook would work for reading while breastfeeding -- light and portable, with changeable font sizes...