A recent border skirmish (Shrewsbury lies only a few miles from the border with Wales) has resulted in prisoners being taken by both sides. The local sheriff, Gilbert Prestcote, has been captured by the Welsh. And Elis, a young lad from a noble Welsh clan, has fallen into English hands.
Brother Cadfael is sent across the border to propose a prisoner swap. It is accepted, honorably; "a life for a life" so to speak. Unfortunately, in the course of the exchange, one of the prisoners is murdered. And "a life for a corpse" just doesn't quite cut it.
What's To Like...
Dead Man's Ransom stays true to Ellis Peters' standard formula for a Brother Cadfael tale. A cozy whodunit is intertwined with a romance. Love becomes strained due to the crime; but wins out in the end after the case is solved.
There's nothing wrong with that, provided the murder-mystery is well-crafted. And once again Ms. Peters comes through. There are enticing clues, red herrings, and a half-dozen suspects, all equally suspicious. If you're alert enough, you can solve the case alongside Brother Cadfael, but I didn't.
There are a few non-typical things about this particular book in the series (this is my fifth one). First, Brother Cadfael journeys further out than usual - going twice into Wales itself (there's a useful map to help you keep track of who's heading where). Second, there are actually two romances in the story. And third, there is a key battle, involving hundreds of fighters, that Ellis Peters somehow handles "cozily".
Kewlest New Word...
Brychan : a woolen quilt or comforter.
Those who go forth to the battle never return without holes in their ranks, like gaping wounds. Pity of all pities that those who lead never learn, and the few wise men among those who follow never quite avail to teach. But faith given and allegiance pledged are stronger than fear, thought Cadfael, and that, perhaps, is virtue, even in the teeth of death. Death, after all, is the common expectation from birth. Neither heroes nor cowards can escape it. (pg. 4)
"Which of us," said Owain sombrely, "has never been guilty of some unworthiness that sorts very ill with what our friends know of us? Even with what we know, or think we know of ourselves! I would not rule out any man from being capable once in his life of a gross infamy." (pg. 195)
"The wisest man in his cups may step too large and fall on his face." (pg. 157)
This is vintage Ellis Peters. It's a combination of a masterful murder-mystery, some heartwarming romance, and a brilliant piece of historical fiction. There's also a smattering of humor (Brother Cadfael chafes at the thought that he might be old at the age of 61), and a thoughtful look at dementia through 12th-century eyes.
Dead Man's Ransom may be formulaic, but that's not a problem when the template is great. 8½ Stars.