23 March 2012
Book Review: An Excellent Mystery, by Ellis Peters
O God, who has consecrated the state of Matrimony to such an excellent mystery...Look mercifully upon these thy servants.
Somehow, I missed that the first time I read through the book. And believe me, it makes all the difference in the world for how I understand the story. In fact, I remember not liking An Excellent Mystery at all when I read it in my teens, so I was curious to see how my opinion of it had evolved, if at all. Truth be told, there are elements in the story that were just too much for my teenage self to deal with. Now, I can appreciate the whole story -- the sum of all its parts -- far more.
As is typical with the Cadfael mysteries, of which this is the 11th, Peters uses the historical fact of the 12th-century war between Stephen and Maud to provide an impetus for the events that occur. In An Excellent Mystery, the burning of the city of Winchester, and with it the priory of Hyde Mead sends two Benedictine brothers to the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. Brother Humilis and Brother Fidelis are welcomed in Shrewsbury, and as Brother Humilis -- a former Crusader who experienced extensive wounds in the East-- is suffering a number of serious health problems Brother Cadfael becomes a friend to them. Brother Humilis is the older of the two, and Brother Fidelis, a mute, is his faithful companion. Fidelis's love seems to be, and frankly is, of the purest kind: he is committed to the elder brother's care and sacrifices of himself every day as an act of true kindness.
Shortly after their arrival, Brother Humilis receives a guest, one of his former soldiers in the East, Nicholas Harnage. Young Harnage arrives with an interesting request. Before leaving for the Crusades, Brother Humilis -- who was formerly Godfrid Marescot of nearby Salton -- had engaged himself to a young woman of good family named Julian Cruce. Humilis's wounds in the East left him unable to fulfill his agreement to marry her, so he had sent Nicholas Harnage to her to break the news. It turns out that in the process Harnage was quite taken with the lady but did not feel comfortable speaking to her about his feelings at the time. This was three years ago, and Harnage comes to make sure his former lord does not mind him speaking for Julian Cruce's hand. Brother Humilis, of course, has no objection whatsoever: he respects Harnage and wants only the best for the young woman.
So off Nicholas Harnage goes to court Julian. But when he arrives, he discovers that shortly after Brother Humilis took the cowl Julian Cruce took the veil and became a nun. (Apparently, the betrothal was of the sort that some felt it could not be broken, so she did not feel entirely free to marry someone else and chose the convent instead.) Harnage is disappointed and returns to Shrewsbury -- just in time to discover that the convent where Julian apparently went has now been burned to the ground in the fighting. This is enough to send Harnage out to search for her, if only to make sure she's all right, and Brother Humilis (who always felt guilty about what happened and is genuinely concerned for her safety) is also concerned and encourages Harnage to get word.
What Nicholas Harnage discovers is something that, for three years, even Julian Cruce's family did not know. She may have intended to take the veil, but the convent at which she was supposed to become a member has never heard of her. In fact, Julian Cruce has essentially disappeared. So for Harnage, his quest is now to find out what happened, if the lady is well or if she met harm on her journey to the convent. By this time, Shropshire's sheriff (and Cadfael's friend) Hugh Beringar is involved, and he too sets out to see if they can trace the lady's moves before her disappearance.
And this is the core of the mystery in An Excellent Mystery, and as the title indicates it is all wrapped up in the quote above. But I won't ruin it for you. I'll only say that it makes for a truly excellent story. Peters handles delicate matter in a way that never becomes sordid. Instead, she finds that very difficult balance in conveying what makes us simultaneously erring humans and children of God, and you walk away struck by the beauty of mercy and grace.
Year of publication: 1985
Number of pages: 214