Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Edith Pargeter invented a sub-genre, medieval mysteries, when she wrote her Brother Cadfael series. Now she isn't writing new Brother Cadfael mysteries because she died. Several other people are writing medieval mysteries, which never used to happen.

She wrote the Cadfael books and some modern mysteries as Ellis Peters, and many other books under her birth name, Edith Pargeter.

It would have been excellent if she could have created a sub-genre in which a river was a character. She often, in her books, pushed in that direction.

She had a strong relationship with the Severn, a river in England near Wales. It plays a part in many Cadfael mysteries. Objects are thrown into the river and then found, helping to show who the real murderer is. Bodies are swept away and then found by Madog, the man Cadfael knows who knows all about the river and what its currents do, where bodies are likely to go.

She wrote a book, another kind of book, in which the Severn comes even closer to being a character. It was an Edith Pargeter book which sort of fit into the woman in peril genre, except that is a genre repugnant to Edith Pargeter. She is fascinated by men being brave and smart. But she wrote this book which could pass for woman in peril, where the Severn was a big player. If river-as-character was a genre, this one would be close.

It's set around a archeological dig in England, right next to the Severn.

England was part of the Roman Empire for 400 years. There are many Roman remains and this site is finding some of them

Security at the site isn't great, barely exists. Roman digs are not a big deal. On the other hand, some stuff that might be found at such a site would be very valuable to some collectors.

So the unsecure site creates a situation in which it would be possible for an unofficial digger to find something valuable and sell it.

Or someone digging could create a fake and plant it and find it to help their academic reputation.

Bad things are indeed afoot at the site to the extent that someone on the track of the bad things is in peril of being buried alive in the site--the bad guys have trapped him and split.

(The person in peril is a guy, not the woman who is the main character who the author is not too interested in.)

There's a storm and the Severn gets wilder. It rips its banks wider, and rips open the site in a way that says the life of the man in peril and exposes the fraud.

This book is interesting and uneven. The Severn is vivid and powerful to a much greater extent than any human. The part about the Severn, the descriptions of it at various times of day, the description of it doing justice, are worth reading the book for.

The Cadfael book, "An Excellent Mystery," lives up to its gutsy name. As it draws to a close, Cadfael is presented with what looks to him like an insoluable problem. He is, of course, a professional prayer, and he prays even more and harder than usual.

The Severn solves the probem with fierce and elegant kindness, and leaves Cadfael to present the solution in a way people in general can accept. Which he does.

Some people are very taken with parts of reality that aren't human. Expressing that in art is good, because those of us not drawn to that can get a sample of what it's like. And people who are drawn to that can feel less lonely.

Edith Pargeter liked connectedness. The twenty books of the Brother Cadfael series are continuous in time, one begins where the other stops. That isn't evident if you read just one, and isn't a problem. But what is happening is we are going through seasons and years with Cadfael.

There is an awful civil war going on and on, and Cadfael does what he can and has a pretty good time.

The civil war actually happened in England in the 1200's. Ellis Peters has the history exactly right, every time she touches general history.

The second book is centered around an atrocity. King Stephen the leader of one side of the civil war, the side Cadfael lives in the middle of, kills 92 prisoners. By the standards of that time, that is a horrible thing to do.

Knights, the officer class, did not even die all that much in battle because the usual thing was to capture them and collect ransom. Their families or the political entities they ran would come up with money.

These prisoners were of that class and were killed by the king's order, in cold blood, because he was ticked, for a while. That is part of the historical King Stephen's character. He got mad and did bad things he was later sorry for, but they were already done.

No one could do anything about these 92 ill-killed prisoners. (Prisoners actually killed in history.)

But in the made up part of the book, not historical but in the context of history, Cadfael goes with a woman to help her look among the corpses for her brother. While he is doing that, he notices there are 93 corpses. The name of this Cadfael book is "One Corpse Too Many."

Does is matter, in a civil war, with towns being burned, the rules of warfare violated, does it matter that somebody snuck another corpse into the king's corpse pile in hopes of getting away with murder?

It matters to Cadfael, and he makes it matter to the sheriff. Later in the series the sheriff is Cadfael's friend Huge who likes following the evidence because it's the right thing to do and it's interesting. At this point the sheriff is a man not obsessed with niceties, so Cadfael has to push him to care about the extra corpse. He does push him successfully.

The sheriff at the beginning of the Cadfael series is a man with a lot to tend to, in a civil war. He is happy to grab the obvious culprit in an obvious crime, but isn't one to worry a lot that the obvious culprit sometimes is not the person who did it.

When Cadfael comes up, in "One Corpse Too Many," with a non-obvious crime, this sheriff doesn't feel like thanking him for his civic participation.

Later, he is killed in the civil war, and Cadfael's buddy Hugh, who has been assistant sheriff, becomes the man. He and Cadfael push each other to be clever and look for evidence and figure it out.

That's all fairly new in Europe at this time. It's like Europe as a whole is slapping itself on the forehead and saying, "Evidence! What a concept!"

Before guilt or innocence was found by calling a lot of character witnesses, by mystical and nasty trials, like trying to drown the accused, and by fights, knightly armored fights between the accuser and the accused in armor with horses and lances, and, after they got off the horses swords.

If the accused lost, he was guilty. If he won, he was innocent. If one of the people in the fight was trained in knightly fighting skills and the other wasn't, things could get ugly. The knight butchers the merchant, so the merchant must have been guilty.

But the Europe is rediscovering codified law, starting with the university at Bologna in Italy. The idea and practice of codified law and with it evidence moves out from the learning center of Italy and eventually reaches the backwater of England. When Cadfael, often working with Hugh, collects evidence and expects the legal system to notice, he's expectomg something that there wouldn't have been a mental or systemic space for a couple of centuries before.

The author doesn't say this transition from struggle and magic and character witnesses to evidence is going on--she doesn't talk like that.

Instead she illustrates it.

Early on in the series, before Hugh is assistant sheriff or sheriff or anything official, he and Cadfael figured out who done it in a particular murder.

The problem is that Hugh has recently met his true love and future wife, and who done it involves him. He's dead, but exposing the whole thing at a trial would give her bad news and besmirch her family name.

So Hugh challenges the living murderer to a judicial fight, to prevent a trial.

He can do that. Both ways of looking at it still exist.

Hugh is smaller than the man he challenges. He's in good shape and motivated by love. Also, by judicial struggle theory, God is on his side.

Hugh wins. That's the last time in that series something like that happens in the legal realm. The world is moving in a different direction.

When Hugh fights a judicial battle with the guilty guy, he is for one thing punishing the guilty guy and for another thing engaged in a coverup of part of the whole story.

Cadfael wants to know what happened and he wants justice done, but he doesn't always think the larger good is served by having everybody know everything.

And in one case, he chooses, on his own, mercy over what would usually be called justice. He knows he did it, he's given Hugh his information, but not his conclusions. Hugh doesn't go after this guy, and Cadfael places himself so the guy can go after him. The guy comes up on Cadfael with a knife to kill him and doesn't. Cadfael doesn't stop him; he stops himself.

So Cadfael says that he will tell the guy his punishment.

Cadfael and the whole series are in England, right next to Wales. Wales is another country then, another language, another culture, not at war with England but not a fan.

Cadfael tell the murderer that he, Cadfael, has decided that the murderer's punishment is to live. To go deep into Wales and start a new life, and make it a good life.

The murderer is tormented about having murdered, and this idea of getting off scot-free seems hard to him. Cadfael says, in essence, "That's the punishment." They have both seen that he is not a habitual murderer, because he didn't murder Cadfael, and Cadfael has decided, all on his own, is the right outcome is for this man to take his torment and guilt and use the energy of that to make a good life. That's looks hard. Punishment is hard.

At one point in the series, Cadfael fakes a miracle in order to insure that the wrong people aren't punished for a crime.

In his time and place, people are very ready to see miracle. We might be under ready to see miracles in our time and place. We might miss them when they are right there.

After Cadfael fakes a miracle, it achieves it's desired end of causing justice and preventing injustice. The fake miracle serves the ego of the person in power in this situation, so he goes for it.

Later in the series, I feel the auther, Peter/Pargeter, makes it up to the spirit of the time she's working in by having there be two read miracle. Right in the middle of a realistic narrative, miracles intrude and are amazing and unnerving, just like miracles would be, like they are.