Christopher Idle sings the praises of the Whodunit
‘In the darkness of the long dortoir, almost two hours past Compline, the only light was the small lamp left burning at the head of the night stairs into the church.’ He reported as much to Prior Robert, returning breathless just before Compline was due to begin. ‘Take him away, girl, and let me put out the brazier and shut up my workshop, or I shall be late for Compline.’
To our mild surprise and some disappointment, my wife and I discovered that we have now read the full quota of the Brother Cadfael Chronicles. We completed the list desultorily rather than ruthlessly. It took some years; we have conducted no detailed analysis, made no pilgrimage to Shrewsbury. It is a gentle pleasure for garden chairs on holiday or long winter evenings at home. But if ever we find ourselves in that town, it is not only the football ground we shall be looking for. The castle and abbey, its river, walls and bridges will all hold our attention; St Giles, and the roads leading north to Chester or south to Winchester.
If you have read thus far you will not need to be told that Ellis Peters has conjured up a series of twelfth century whodunits set in the troubled years of King Stephen and the Empress Maud. The author’s Holmes, Poirot, Wimsey and Co are found in the one person of a mature Benedictine who had quite a career before entering the Shrewsbury cloister. Cadfael is Welsh by birth; he has fought the Saracens in Palestine and done many more unmonkish things which I will not spoil by revealing here. So the discipline and insights of the religious life add a gentle spice to the stories of battle, murder and sudden death which often invade the quiet of the chapel and the environs of the abbey.
I do not know if Ellis Peters has got it right. We are inclined to take on trust her research into herbs and medicine, blood and bones, food and clothing, houses and livestock, in her chosen period. I occasionally check in Crockford or Whitaker to see if the bishop or king is real; of course he is!
Recreating the past
Without being in the Dorothy L Sayers class, she does her job well; suspense, surprise, subtlety, character, humour – it is all here. So is poverty, illness, cruelty, and all the familiar ecclesiastical sins of pride, hypocrisy, worldliness and pettiness. We also find sacrifice, romance, generosity and good-neighbourliness, all served up with plenty of town gossip, and the costly joys of reconciliation and peace.
Someone, for all I know, may have done work on the spirituality which gives the series a unique piquancy. Does this irritate the irreligious, or do they simply skip it? Every story throws some shaft of light on vocation, ministry and the life of prayer. Every drama has its temptations, and those most equipped to resist them must feel them most keenly.
Sins, we find, may be confessed at the highest (or lowest) level without real penitence. Obedience can be resented or joyfully embraced in ways unsuspected by the world or the flesh. Motives for religious commitment are often not quite what they seem. Even lying, adultery, murder and treason… no, I must not spill any beans, except to say that the story-line may seduce us towards moral choices which are at least worth a discussion. (There’s an idea for a Lent series). Some adopt pagan lifestyles and brutal conduct; but the author does not rub our noses in the Shrewsbury dirt. Like the evangelists, she can report foul abuse without printing it all.
The writing technique is not flawless. If it aspired to greatness, we would object to the play of coincidence: ‘It so happened that he was crossing the courtyard just at that very moment…’ It is also unrealistic for anyone, even a trained and tonsured sleuth, to read character from a face in fifteen seconds. But at least it’s more credible than Susan Howatch.
Let us return to Compline, and not be the last to squeeze in. There are also High Masses, Prime, Vespers and all, but the late evening service provides a specially gracious rhythm to the story, lent all the more enchantment by the shadowy concealments and yet darker perils not far away. The homely assurance, the familiar regularity of it measures the Abbey nights and days for Cadfael, his superiors, brothers, novices and guests alike. It also contrasts, like its own antiphonal responses, with the terrible deeds keeping pace outside and sometimes within. It provides consecrated time and sacred space for quiet observation and reflection, occasionally a doze and sometimes a denouement.
What is also striking, given the high profile of the canonical hours in so many plots, is that the reflection is usually on the state of the detection; has the right man been arrested, or will he be? Or woman? Compline is sometimes like the chorus of a tragedy, but we never eavesdrop on the words; its music, too, is not silent but remains unheard. Is our detective ever moved by a psalm, lection, collect or canticle, while on his knees on the cold chancel stone behind the pillar?
Many prayers are offered, not only in the formal Latin of the beautifully decorated pages of the service books, but also in the private devotions of the Abbot, the Prior, and the hero-cum-herbalist-cum-apothecary-cum-counsellor-cum- bloodhound.
It cannot be easy to think yourself back into a pre-Chaucer England and make it credible from scratch. Did the senior brothers ever recall their late great Archbishop Anselm, or debate his wisdom and learning on the Incarnation and the Atonement? Was it new; was it true?
We are well before Wycliffe, but I would love to watch a brace of Lollards walking up St Giles to set up their bookstall and preaching post in the market; I am sure Cadfael would just happen to be passing. And someone would be certain to get killed; they always are. Whodunit? Alas, the Cadfael canon is closed. But Ellis Peters is no doubt remembered from time to time, not least at Compline.
Christopher Idle says Compline in the Diocese of Southwark.
The writing technique is not flawless. But at least it’s more credible than Susan Howatch.