Ellis Peters came to detective fiction after many years of novel writing. Disliking the frequently made distinction between detective novels, or “thrillers,” as she called them, and serious novels, she stressed that “the thriller is a novel. . . . The pure puzzle, with a cast of characters kept deliberately two-dimensional and all equally expendable at the end, has no attraction for me.” Her detective novels bear witness both to her life experiences and to her statements about her art.
Peters was essentially a social novelist. Murder serves as her occasion to dramatize a wide variety of human interactions and motivations in settings that are vividly realized. One might think of an Ellis Peters mystery in terms of a set of concentric circles. At the center is the detective character, usually preoccupied at the beginning of the novel with something other than crime. Frequently, he or she is an amateur who assumes the role of detective only circumstantially. The amateur status of several of her detectives allows Peters to move the narrative comfortably beyond crime into other areas such as love relationships, family interactions, and the struggles of adolescents maturing toward self-discovery. Except for Death Mask (1959), Peters’s detective novels are narrated from a third-person point of view through an anonymous persona. Peters is able to narrow or broaden her perspective with ease, and therefore to present the inner workings of her central characters’ minds and to focus on external matters—landscapes, social or historical background, local customs—with equal skill.
The central character is generally carefully placed within the circle of a close family or community that is described in depth. The earlier mysteries often focus on Central Intelligence Division detective sergeant George Felse of Comerford, his wife, Bunty, and their son Dominic. Although George and Dominic are the most actively involved in detection, Bunty too becomes accidentally involved in solving a murder in The Grass-Widow’s Tale (1968). Peters’s later series places its central character, Brother Cadfael, within the twelfth century Benedictine community of monks at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury, England. Although the Felse family series ranges in locale from central England to such places as the Cornish coast, Scotland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and India, the Brother Cadfael novels usually stay within the vicinity of Shrewsbury, allowing Peters to develop her picture of medieval life in great depth.
Beyond these family and community circles, there are larger milieus. For the Felse family, these include a variety of worlds—for example, those of concert musicians, of diplomats, and of professional thieves. Brother Cadfael and his fellow monks live in the Shropshire of the late 1130’s and earlier 1140’s and frequently find themselves caught in the political strife between Empress Maud and her cousin King Stephen, who contend for the British crown. At other times, the political feuds are more local if not less complex and bitter.
The Grass-Widow’s Tale
Typically, Peters’s detective novels begin at a fairly leisurely pace. In The Grass-Widow’s Tale, for example, Bunty Felse at the outset is feeling frustrated that her husband and son are going to be absent on her forty-first birthday, doubtful about her identity and accomplishments, and gloomy as she ponders “age, infirmity, and death.” The plot of this novel takes many surprising twists and turns before focusing on the solution of a murder and robbery case, a case that becomes the occasion for Bunty to find renewed meaning in her life and to discover some precious truths about the nature of human love.
A Morbid Taste for Bones
In A Morbid Taste for Bones: A Mediaeval Whodunnit (1977), the first chronicle of Brother Cadfael, Peters begins with the background for the Shrewsbury monks’ mission to Wales to obtain the bones of Saint Winifred and proceeds to dramatize the initial results of that mission and to establish the novel’s major characters and subplots. It is only on page 91 of this 256-page novel that a murder case surfaces.
Once the scenes have been set and the characters established, Peters’s detective novels become absorbingly suspenseful and often contain exciting action scenes. The Grass-Widow’s Tale includes a terrifying episode in which Bunty and her companion, Luke, must fight their way out of a cottage in which they are being held by a gang of ruthless professional criminals who are planning to murder them. Saint Peter’s Fair (1981), one of the most suspenseful of the Brother Cadfael chronicles, features a remarkable chase-and-rescue sequence.
A highly skillful creator of suspense, Peters proves to be at least as gifted as a student of human character. She has explained her interest in crime novels thus:The paradoxical puzzle, the impossible struggle to create a cast of genuine, rounded, knowable characters caught in conditions of stress, to let readers know everything about them, feel with them, like or dislike them, and still to try to preserve to the end the secret of which of these is a murderer—this is the attraction for me.
The most successfully realized of Peters’s characters is...
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