Not Just Kind of Dumb

I’m sorry to say I have to retract my endorsement of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael medieval murder mystery series. This is not to say I have not found many of them to be great reads, but I just ran into one that is dumb, dumb, dumb.

And I don’t mean kind of dumb. I’ve run into that before. I mean really, really dumb, so dumb you throw the book across the room. It was okay when she had a party of Danes from Dublin raid the coast of Wales without so much as wounding a single person.

I can excuse a few courteous Danes. And I can excuse the fact that she, like Agatha Christie and, sadly, Tony Hillerman in his later books, seems to be more concerned with making sure those two nice young people settle down and get married than she is with crafting a good book.

Agatha Christie used to trade on that once in a while by making one of those nice young people the murderer, but she had to produce a book a year for eighty years, so she pretty much had to try everything at least once. Witness for the Prosecution and The Lady Vanishes are masterpieces, don’t get me wrong, but her stuff got sappier and sappier and daffier and daffier.

She had a couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who constituted a special bureau of Scotland Yard: the bureau in charge of murders where the murderer, at the scene of every crime, leaves a snippet from a nursery rhyme. Apparently it happens a lot more often than you think.

Once Dame Agatha got to the end of one of these horrors, The Postern of Fate I think it was, and couldn’t figure out an ending, so she had a guy come in from M5, or whatever they call the British CIA, and he said it was all “very hush-hush” and that was that. Seriously.

Ellis Peters disappointed me utterly and completely in The Virgin in the Ice mainly because it was set up so beautifully — a body discovered frozen in the ice. OK, OK the cute young boy did have to work at it to get captured by the bandits; that I was ready to forgive. That’s just kind of dumb. But when it came time for Sheriff Hugh Beringar and his men to storm the bandit fortress she reached the absolute nadir of stupidity.

These bandits have sacked and burned four or five hamlets, murdering all the inhabitants — dozens, if not scores of people. Beringar and his men have hunted them down in their mountain fastness and are breaking down the gate after considerable loss of life on both sides, and the bandit chieftain appears on the battlements holding a 13-year-old boy and threatens to kill him unless they desist.

And what does Beringar do, do you suppose? He calls off his men. After all, the kid is the nephew of… some guy they don’t even know!

I can take Benedictine abbots who are wise and fair and not the least prone to vile superstitions, even though they are a bit obsessed with the fingerbones and other unsavory relics of obscure saints. I can forgive medieval princelings who show a sense of justice and compassion for the lower orders. I guess there had to be a few of those at some time or other, even if they’re unknown to recorded history.

And, as I said, I can forgive Viking raiding parties that behave like a bunch of smurfs and care bears. But a medieval warlord sparing a whole fortress full of murderous, rapacious brigands and footpads to save the life of a teenager who had to make a serious effort to get captured by them in the first place?

Sorry, Ellis, you’re off my list of authors who do not disappoint. I might recommend selected titles, but the blanket endorsement is utterly and permanently revoked.