1988; 196 pages. New Author? : No. Book 15 (out of 20) of the “Brother Cadfael” series. Genre : Murder-Mystery, Historical Fiction, Cozy Mystery. Overall Rating : 8*/10.
Ah, yes. Those deathbed confessions. They’re good for your soul. Especially when you’ve been carrying around an unconfessed sin for close to 20 years.
Such is the burden Brother Haluin’s bearing. But he’s slipped from the icy roof of the abbey’s guest hall while trying to clear the snowfall off. It was a 40 foot drop, and now he lays at death’s door. Best to confess the grievous transgression that drove him to take up the cloth in the first place.
As head of the abbey, Abbot Radulfus is duly called to hear Brother Haluin’s final confession. Brother Cadfael is also present, since Haluin says the sin was also against him, even though Cadfael was unaware of it. And it is indeed a vile misdeed, something that definitely needed to be gotten off one's chest before approaching the pearly gates. There’s just one problem.
What do you do about it when, against all odds, Brother Haluin makes a dramatic recovery?
What’s To Like...
The Confession of Brother Haluin is the ninth book I’ve read in this series, so I’m about halfway in completing it. The plotlines are by-and-large formulaic: there’s always a heartwarming-but-forbidden love, somebody gets murdered, one or the other of the lovebirds gets accused, and Brother Cadfael saves the day via 12th-century sleuthing.
This book is no exception to this format, but the first half of the story is mostly about Haluin resolving to undertake a pilgrimage of penance, despite being unable to walk without crutches. By page 100, I was muttering “Where’s the Murder?” and “Where’s the Romance?” I shouldn’t’ve fretted. Both show up shortly thereafter, and things hum along swimmingly through the rest of the pages.
Ellis Peters tackles some controversial issues here – abortion and incest – and I was wondering how she planned on resolving both while still maintaining the “cozy mystery” style. Well, she managed this quite successfully and with impressive plausibility.
All Brother Cadfael books are a vocabularian’s delight. The best words of the bunch are listed below, and I was proud that my brain is retaining some of the medieval words, such as “lief” and “assart”. The use of the word “solar” as a noun was totally new to me.
The settings for the story are somewhat unusual in that very little takes place at the abbey and the nearby town of Shrewsbury. Haluin makes his pilgrimage to a place somewhat removed from the abbey, and Cadfael accompanies him. So most of the regulars are either missing or have only minor roles. Ah, but this meant meeting lots of new people and going to lots of new places, and I enjoyed that.
I also liked that none of the characters were totally black or white, not even those who perpetrated the murder. Even Cadfael has some moments of self-doubt, such as when he reflects on his “meddling” in the past. Everything builds to great, and somewhat surprising ending which, like any cozy should, will leave the reader with a warm and fuzzy feeling, despite a loose thread or two.
Kewlest New Word...
Solar (n., Middle English) : a loft or upper chamber forming the private accommodation of the head of the household in a medieval hall.
Others: Chilblained (adj.); Elegiac (adj.); Garth (n.); Colloquy (n.); Advowson (n.).
“You do know about my marriage – that Jean comes here today?”
“Your brother has told us,” said Cadfael, watching the features of her oval face emerge softly from shadow, every plaintive, ingenuous line testifying to her youth. “But there are things he could not tell us,” he said, watching her intently, “except by hearsay. Only you can tell us whether this match has your consent, freely given, or no.” (…)
“If we do anything freely, once we are grown,” she said, “then yes, this I do freely. There are rules that must be kept. There are others in the world who have rights and needs, and we are all bound.” (pg. 106)
It is a terrible responsibility, thought Cadfael, who had never aspired to ordination, to have the grace of God committed to a man’s hands, to be privileged and burdened to play a part in other people’s lives, to promise them salvation in baptism, to lock their lives together in matrimony, to hold the key to purgatory at their departing. If I have meddled, he thought devoutly, and God knows I have, when need was and there was no better man to attempt it, at least I have meddled only as a fellow sinner, tramping the same road, not as a viscount of heaven, stooping to raise up. (pg. 114)
Murder brings out into the open many matters no less painful, while itself still lurking in the dark. (pg. 128)
The quibbles are negligible.
I‘m getting to the point, having read so many of these Brother Cadfael books, that I can anticipate the plot twists coming up. But I still marvel at how plausible Ellis Peters makes them seem.
Also, the pacing of the first half of the book kinda dawdles for a while as Cadfael and Haluin traipse around, and the reader waits for someone to get killed. Plus, there were one or two incredible coincidences that strained my bridge of believability, but it has to be said they served to move the story along.
Last, and least, if you like cozies but don’t like historical fiction, this series may not be your cup of tea. Cadfael and the sheriff Hugh Beringar spend about 10 pages at the beginning discussing the ongoing civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud (yes, England did have an Empress once upon a time). I love history, and so for me this was fascinating. But for those who aren’t history buffs, it may be a bit tedious.
8 Stars. At Book 15 out of 20, The Confession of Brother Haluin comes rather late in the series, and most of the ones I’ve read so far are earlier entries. So it was a nice surprise to see the series hadn’t lost any of its luster as it aged.