Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Alafair's Antecedents

Jeri Westerson’s guest entry last Sunday struck quite a chord with me (Donis). I too write historical mysteries, and like Jeri, I do it out of love. I have always loved historical novels. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and would read anything I could get my hands on, but I would always choose a historical novel above any other genre. For me, a historical novel is like a cheap vacation. I love to go to a place and a time and live there for a while.

I discovered English author and scholar Edith Pargeter when I was in my twenties, and she quickly became one of my favorite historical novelists. The day came, of course, when I had read every historical novel of hers that I could find here in this country. Though I’m always happy to reread a good book, I did find myself hungry for any new historical dish by Pargeter. It didn’t take much research on my part to find out that under the pseudonym Ellis Peters, Edith Pargeter had created a fabulous series of historical mysteries featuring a Benedictine monk by the name of Brother Cadfael. The Brother Cadfael mysteries are set in Twelfth Century Shrewsbury, close by the Welsh border, during the long war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud for the English throne. Cadfael may be an elderly monk, but that doesn’t mean he’s innocent of the ways of the world. He gained all the skills necessary to untangle the knottiest mystery during his young manhood and middle age, when he served as a soldier and a sailor in the Crusades. There is little of human nature he hasn’t seen. And since he is also an accomplished herbalist, growing and mixing medicines for the Abbey, he is an expert on the properties of plants and poisons.

Each of the twenty Brother Cadfael mysteries is a ripping tale of close calls, treachery, and narrow escapes. How eemingly unrelated events eventually weave together to create amazing, but totally believable tales, is a testament to Peters’ skill as a story teller. She creates haunting images of winter; blizzards and wind like knives, cold stone castles, misty fall evenings and sunny summer days. Her characters are capable of inhuman cruelty, as well as great acts of kindness and compassion, cowardice and heroism. Actions of a past long gone affect the events of the present.

I had never had anything against mysteries, but neither was I a mystery addict in any sense of the word. But Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mysteries rocked my reading world and inspired me to write historical mysteries of my own. Peters’ voice - the very way the books are written - evoke the times and the place with the language she uses. The character of Cadfael himself captured me. He is wise, tolerant, and world-weary, a man of his times. He has a true warmth, and by that, I don’t mean sentimentality or emotion, necessarily. I mean a deep humanity and heart that transcends even his formidable intellect. I want to spend time with him, and that is the secret of a successful fictional character. The setting, 12th Century Shrewsbury, is evoked so strongly that the reader comes away with the sense that she knows what it must have been like to live in that time and place.

The books I write are set eight hundred years later, and a place thousands of miles away, and feature a character whose life couldn’t be more different from Brother Cadfael’s. Yet he is Alafair Tucker’s true ancestor.

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