Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Virgin in the Ice - Ellis Peters


This was the sixth Brother Cadfael mystery by Ellis Peters, also known as Edith Pargeter, published back in 1982.  Peters was the original author of medieval murder mysteries, a field which has now proliferated into a double sub-genre of history and crime.  I can't remember if Peters came before or after Umberto Eco's overblown In the Name of the Rose.  To my memory they were coeval.  Certainly Peters wrote a lot more of them.

In this story, it is coming up to Christmas 1139, the first year of the Anarchy - "years in which the saints slept" - when the last of the The House of Normandy, Stephen and Matilda, vied for the English crown. Cadfael is called away from Shewsbury to nearby Bromfield to tend a monk who has been beaten and left for dead.  Meanwhile the authorities are searching for a brother and sister, heirs to a great estate, who have gone missing.  And then Cadfael himself finds the titular virgin entombed in a frozen beck.

The plot unfolds smoothly.  The writing tends to the stilted, but I find that preferable to giving historical figures a version of modern speech,  Peters is immersed in her period - a similar period in which she wrote her most significant works as Pargeter (for example, the Brothers of Gwynedd trilogy) and brings it vividly to life.  The villain was fairly obvious by about halfway and the twist at the end which is supposed to make us gasp made me cringe.  Nevertheless, a minor classic of the sub-genre which gave much pleasure.

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