Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Leper of St. Giles - Ellis Peters

1981; 199 pages. Genre : Murder Mystery. New Author? : Yes. No. Well, kinda. Book #5 (out of 20) in the Brother Cadfael series. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
Huon de Domville and Iveta de Massard are about to get married. But it's an arranged affair - strictly a business deal for Huon, and an unhappy event for Iveta, who's in love with Joscelin Lucy, one of Huon's squires. Plus, Huon's old enough to be Iveta's father.
Alas, Joscelin becomes an ex-squire when his feelings towards Iveta are brought to light. And he flees when accused of theft by Huon. So when the latter is found dead (by strangulation) on the morning of the wedding, guess who's the prime suspect?
What's To Like...
Despite its brevity, there are several themes here - a love story (phbbbt!); a whodunit; and a social commentary on the plight of lepers. There's even a bit of humor, in the person of Brother Cadfael's assistant, the bumbling Brother Oswin.
No one is completely evil here, not even Huon. And you can't tell who the killer is by who doesn't get along with Brother Cadfael; he's a monk and gets along with everybody. But, as with any good whodunit, you can pretty much deduce the malfeasant by paying attention to the clues. Still, there are twists at the end that will catch you by surprise.
Kewl New Words...
Lots of 'em. Scrofulous : having a diseased appearance resembling scrofula. (Wiki it). Leat : a trench or ditch that conveys water to a mill wheel. Scamp (verb) : to perform hastily. Confutation : an act that proves a person or statement to be in error or false. Byre : a barn. Estampie : a medieval dance and musical form. (the musical form is still known, but the dance itself has been lost in history). Dortoir : a bedroom or dormitory in a monastery. Harebell : wild hyacinth. Cottar : a peasant farmer (who lives in a "cottage"). Bearlead : to lead about (I think). Assart : the act of clearing a forest for agricultural use. Supererogation : an effort above and beyond the call of duty. Pleached : interlaced branches or vines, making a hedge. Hobbledehoy : an awkward, adolescent boy (is that a kewl word, or what?!). Jongleur : a folk singer; a wandering minstrel. Virago : a noisy, scolding, domineering woman. Rouncey : an ordinary, all-purpose horse.
There were always new ones, the wanderers who made their way the length of the land from lazarhouse to lazarhouse, or settled for a while in some hermitage on the charity of a patron, before moving on to new solitudes. Some went on crutches, or leaned hard on staves, having feet maimed by the rot of disease or painful with ulcers. One or two pushed themselves along on little wheeled carts. One hunched shapeless against the fence, bloated with sores and hiding a disfigured face within his cowl. Several, though active, went with veiled faces, only the eyes uncovered. (pg. 5, describing a leper house)
He has seen battles, too, in his time in the world, as far afield as Acre and Ascalon and Jerusalem in the first Crusade, and witnessed deaths crueller than disease, and heathen kinder than Christians, and he knew of leprosies of the heart and ulcers of the soul worse than any of these he poulticed and lanced with his herbal medicines. (pg. 5)
All you need is love...
Ellis Peters is the pen name that Edith Pargeter used when she wrote whodunits instead of historical novels. I've read one of the latter, reviewed here. Her murder-mysteries border on being cozies - the killing happens off-stage, and there is little or no blood. The trail of the crime here is not particularly convoluted, but it will keep you on your toes.
Beyond the story, Peters/Pargeter excels in painting a vivid picture of living in England in 1139 AD. It was a hard life, especially if you were a peasant, a woman, or a leper. Yet it was not a complete misery; there were feast days and wedding celebrations, hunting lodges to relax at, and the protective influence of the church.
The author also gives you some non-stereotypical views on justice, Muslim-Christian relations, and the vocation of being a mistress. These may or may not be historically accurate, but they make for some thoughtful reading. And in the end, true love overcomes all. But you knew it would now, didn't you? 8 Stars.


Julie said...

Wow, a little bit of romance. You're getting brave in your reading and you gave it an 8! That's not too shabby! ;)
Also, I love it when an author can deliver non-stereotypical views like that.
Exellent review!

Hamilcar Barca said...

heh. i can tolerate romance, as long as it's not the main feature of the book. The Leper of St. Giles is first and foremost a murder mystery.

OTOH, i once read Absolute Fear by Lisa Jackson. it has a serial killer in it, but it's first and foremost a love story. yucko. ;-)