I got into Ellis Peters at an early age, because her books are the literary equivalent of the York Railway Game, for which the rules are: when attending any social gathering in York, score one point for each person you can find who works for (or retired from) the rail industry (excluding myself because that would be cheating). Whether it’s a village panto or an International Women’s Day event at the library, in four years I’ve never had a score of zero!
Similarly, I challenge you to go into a second hand bookshop in the UK and not find at least one volume of the Cadfael Chronicles. Fortunately, this is a crime series which you can quite happily read in any order, so if you haven’t discovered the joys of Cadfael yet, you know what to do.
Ellis Peters (real name: Edith Pargeter) was a gifted writer of historical fiction, setting her stories amid the early medieval period (1100 to 1300) which somehow never made it into our school history lessons (other than the castle where the Sheriff Hugh Beringar and his garrison live). I bet you never heard about the first English Civil War between King Stephen and Empress Maud, nor about the antagonism and border troubles between the Welsh and the English during this period. External events often drive the story forward, as in the case of An Excellent Mystery where several monks come seeking refuge at Shrewsbury because their own abbey has been burned down during the fighting.
Brother Cadfael had an interesting previous life as a soldier in the crusades (and therefore knows the ways of the world), but having returned home he became a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, where as herbalist he is called upon to treat illness and injury and identify causes of death. He assists the Sheriff Hugh Beringar is legally obliged to investigate and punish serious crimes on behalf of the King (for murderers, this is usually by hanging – Mara the Brehon’s approach in Ireland is cast in sharp relief!) However, Cadfael has a mischievous and merciful bent, so he doesn’t always tell the Sheriff everything he knows, and occasionally wrongdoers may be able to escape across the border before Hugh can catch them.
The books are as much about community life inside and outside the abbey and the interplay between love, ambition, money and family loyalty as about solving puzzles, which means the endings are satisfying: although death and sadness may spoil relationships, there is also hope that life goes on. This is why An Excellent Mystery is my favourite Cadfael book, as it takes love and loyalty as its theme, while solving the puzzle of the missing woman Julian (who was supposed to have entered a convent when her betrothed returned from the crusades seriously injured and cancelled their engagement, but the convent never saw her).
What to Read Next was getting rather long, so I’ve given Edith Pargeter’s mighty historical novels a post of her own. For Ellis Peters, you can get a good sense of the 20-odd Cadfael novels here (I recommend The Sanctuary Sparrow and St Peters Fair). She also wrote about 15 present-day detective novels during the 1960s and 1970s, mostly about Inspector Felse or his son Dominic, but while these are perfectly serviceable (I’d happily take one on holiday for an unchallenging read), they aren’t really the same calibre as her historical novels.
Try this: Ed Cooke’s GoodReads author page has lots more recommendations!