Books in the Blood #16: Why crime pays – medieval style

A funky, chunky monk. Image: Pixabay

A funky, chunky monk.
Image: Pixabay

Policemen are everywhere, aren’t they?

I mean, not in real life, obviously. Bobbies on the beat went the way of Marathon bars and the not-so-smiley smilodon fatalis (what they called a Sabre Toothed Tiger when I was small).

What I mean is, the one place you’ll always find a copper or many coppers (what is the collective noun for policemen? A morose? A renegade? A doughnut?) is on the nearest screen. Film and TV have built season after season, year after year on Peelers and their careers. From Dragnet and Fabian of the Yard through to countless CSIs and the wonderful True Detective, the police drama is the pillar on which viewing is built.

As far as film and programme makers are concerned, crime really does pay.

Of course, crime in the creative arts did not originate on the screen, but in the leathery embrace of books. Edgar Allan Poe – yes, that cheerful rogue  – is credited with creating the first fictional detective, Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Later came Sherlock Holmes (though of course not actually a policeman) and from there, the genre went from strength to strength.

Now, I confess, I don’t read many crime novels. My most recent, back in the summer, were The Axeman’s Jazz by Ray Celestin, and The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson though I bought both largely on the grounds of their historical settings (1930s New Orleans and an 18th century debtors’ prison) rather than the fact they featured mangled corpses. And the Axeman features a young Louis Armstrong playing amateur detective, so how could I resist?

For me, the problem with a lot of crime fiction is the gore. I don’t mind the odd death littering my fiction, the odd imagined corpse to step over. But I don’t really like exuberant death scenarios constructed by hyper intelligent, over educated multiple killers, who spend their time finding excuses to cut people up rather than turning their intelligence to something useful such as finding out why socks disappear inside washing machines and why politicians lose all ethics the moment they’re elected.

Because of this, ‘cosy crime’ has always been an attractive sub-genre for me, focussing on the detectives and their characters rather than a dozen interesting ways to flay the human torso.

Enter today’s Books in the Blood offering,

The Cadfael Chronicles by Ellis Peters.

I read a lot of these when I was a teen and loved them.

The books are set in a monastery in medieval Shrewsbury – a town on the English / Welsh border – and one of the big draws is Cadfael himself. A kindly Welshman, he came late to the religious life, having been a soldier, sailor, lover and amateur student of herbalism. His skills with medicines are superlative, he has a romantic streak in him a mile wide, a profound sense of justice and a seaman’s rolling gait.

He has his own garden, where he grows plants for his many remedies and a herbarium, chockablock with sticky bottles and leaky animal skin flasks and bunches of aromatic herbs drying from the beams – a place I was often happy to imagine myself.

The stories are set during the Anarchy – a 12th century English civil war when the crown was disputed by King Stephen and his cousin the Empress Matilda. Peters throws a good dose of real history into the mix, so the books are filled with sieges and battles. Violence is never far away.

In truth, the Cadfael character is a bit too modern to be of his time.

He studied with Arab scholars – no racist then. He loves and respects women. His sense of justice is twentieth century, not medieval – no ducking stools and trial by ordeal for Cadfael, but fair judgements by honest men. He’s practical and devoid of superstition, save the religious beliefs you’d expect from a Benedictine monk – pretty rare I’d imagine, in an age when sin was thought to cause illness and dog-headed men supposedly inhabited the far flung reaches of the world.

I confess, I found Peters’ habit of shoehorning a pair of star-crossed young lovers into every story a little wearing after a few books, but it’s a small complaint really.

I loved the tales for their setting, their atmosphere and for the salty old seadog Cadfael. Finer company you will not find this side of the 12th century.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Books in the Blood #16: Why crime pays – medieval style

  1. I haven’t checked when the first Cadfael novel came out but I’ve always wondered if Peters was encouraged by the success of Eco’s The Name of the Rose, also set in a monastery and featuring a sleuthing monk called Baskerville.

    I know what you mean by excessive gore, though I can’t quite accede to calling the less violent whodunits ‘cosies’ — if I have to use the term I prefer the American spelling ‘cozy’ as they, after all, invented this particular anodyne label. If there was a more, well, British moniker for this subgenre I’d rather use that. After all, cosy/cozy (which suggests a pleasant blanketed read by the fireside or a duvet-enveloped bedtime pleasure) seems a world away from Cadfael’s unsettling and unsettled Middle Ages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true – I never have understood why any muder mystery is called ‘cosy crime’ . No matter how you handle it, there’s nothing cosy about murder. And yet … The Sunday night slot on the TV, tucked up in front of the fire, watching Miss Marple nose around a country house – I kind of get it.
      Had to check the dates of Name of the Rose and the Cadfaels after you mentioned them – Peters predates Eco. Though, we can’t deduce he was inspired by her 🙂 I loved them both. I read somewhere that she’s given credit for kicking off the ‘historical mystery’ genre – not sure if that’s true, but this type of story has proved popular. Medieval, Roman, Victorian of course – name an era and you’ll find a mystery series set in it.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s