Borderlands: Ellis Peter's Crime Fiction

The Border country between England and Wales is rural and relatively remote, a place of enigmas, and of legends and mysteries. Its very boundaries are uncertain and elusive. Apparently tranquil, long ago it saw fierce conflicts between the English and Welsh and to this day it may be said to witness a clash of cultures, between the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon traditions. Such an evocative area seems to offer fertile ground for fictional crime, so it is surprising how few detective novelists have made use of it. But many of Ellis Peters’ most memorable books, including the Brother Cadfael series which earned her international renown, are set in the borderlands. Above all, she depicts her native Shropshire – a green and pleasant county which, amazingly, was also the cradle of the Industrial Revolution - with loving attention to detail.

Ellis Peters’ real name was Edith Pargeter (1913-1995). The duality of the borderlands was part of her personal heritage: she had a Welsh grandmother, but her parents were both English. Born in a village called Horsehay, she went to school in Ironbridge Gorge, now designated a World Heritage Site in recognition of Abraham Darby’s iron-smelting furnace, founded a couple of centuries before she was born. Early on, she showed a facility for writing. She published a short historical novel with the less than snappy title Hortensius, Friend of Nero in 1936 and her debut crime novel appeared in 1938. Murder in the Dispensary made little impact and remained a little known book until Post Mortem Books recently produced a limited edition reprint. It was the first of four crime novels, initally appearing as newspaper serials, which Peters produced, in the space of a couple of years, under the name of Jolyon Carr. She was fond of male pseudonyms: her second (non-criminous) book appeared as by Peter Benedict and in 1940 she published The Victim Needs a Nurse disguised as John Redfern.

Using her own name, she wrote no fewer than 36 novels, including two notable historical sequences, The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet and The Heaven Tree Trilogy. As Pargeter, she also wrote Fallen into the Pit, which introduced the policeman George Felse and his family; Felse began as a sergeant and eventually became a detective superintendent. One more non-Felse crime novel appeared under her own name before she transformed into Ellis Peters with the publication of Death Mask in 1959. She retained the Peters name for books featuring Felse and, increasingly, his son Dominic.

Just as Agatha Christie was capable of setting books in locations far distant from St Mary Mead, so Peters refused for most of her career to be confined exclusively to the borderlands. The adult Dominic Felse appears, for instance, in two books set in India: Mourning Raga (1969) and Death to the Landlords! (1972). She was also fascinated by Czech society and was responsible for no fewer than sixteen translations from Czech literature. But in everyday life as well as in her writing career, she was most at home in Shropshire.

‘She saw the Welsh as more romantic than the English,’ says Margaret Lewis, author of the critical biography Edith Pargeter: Ellis Peters (revised edition, 2003). ‘The contrast between the English and Welsh ways of life was a theme consciously addressed in many of the book and she explored the notion of very different social and legal systems existing so close to each other. For example, in The Holy Thief she refers to the little-known fact that the Normans condoned slavery – but the Welsh did not.’

In the Felse books, Shropshire is disguised as ‘Midshire’ and in Flight of a Witch (1964), the Hallowmount, a historic and eerie hill with a dark pagan past, plays a central part in the story. Despite not mirroring a real-life feature of the border landscape, the Hallowmount is so atmospherically described that it sticks in the reader’s memory long after details of the plot are likely to have faded. Peters’ acute sense of the history of the borderlands is reflected by the young teacher Tom Kenyon:

‘The Hallowmount withdrew itself at morning and evening into mist, shrouding the Altar and its ring of decrepit trees. He wondered if the small, unaccountable ground-wind had abandoned, until next spring, its nightly ascent by the old paths to the old places where Annet had vanished for a while into her secret world, and whether the reverberations of her tragedy had already seeped away like spilt blood into that already saturated soil.’

Other highlights of the Felse series include the Edgar-winning Death and the Joyful Woman (1964) and Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart (1967). Follymead, the Gothic house featured in the latter book, is based, albeit distantly, on Attingham Park, a much-visited stately home near Shrewsbury. The trouble with the Felse books is George Felse himself. Decent as he is, he scarcely ranks as a memorable detective. Compared to the likes of Dalziel, Rebus, Wexford and Dalgleish, say, he simply does not measure up.

Peters’ master-stroke was to conjure up a new hero, a truly great fictional sleuth who happened to be a twelfth-century monk. Brother Cadfael made his bow in 1977, with the publication of A Morbid Taste for Bones. The book was never intended to be the first in a series and neither the 64 year old author nor her publisher appreciated the potential of the new character; initially, the novel did not even earn publication in paperback. Once Peters had the idea for a follow-up story, however, she was hooked, and Felse was allowed to slip away into well-earned retirement. On one view, it was the international success of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) that established a wide readership for medieval detective fiction. When this was put to Peters, she retorted that she had produced seven Cadfael books by the time that Eco achieved best-selling status. She might have added that Monk’s-Hood (1980) had by then won the CWA Silver Dagger. Yet although Eco’s aims were different from hers, (and she once said to the critic Mike Ashley that she was ‘not on the same wavelength’ as Eco) it is perhaps fair to say that he finally threw open the door at which Peters had been knocking for several years. Thereafter the series achieved ever-increasing commercial success, boosted by television adaptations starring Derek Jacobi as Cadfael, and in 1993 Peters was awarded the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in her crime-writing career.

From the start, the Cadfael books benefited from their setting and from Peters’ knowledge of its history. As Margaret Lewis says in her insightful book, ‘to escape across the border meant freedom, just as fugitives fleeing from justice in the United States frequently head for the Mexican border. Almost always the guilty in Cadfael’s world speed westwards along the quiet forest paths to reach Wales, only about ten miles away.’ She argues that ‘the territorial border plays an important role in the development of the narratives, providing a psychological as well as physical boundary of mountain and dyke.’ The point is illustrated by a passage from The Raven in the Foregate (1986):

‘Powys might be a wild land, but it had no quarrel with a soldier of the Empress more than with an officer of King Stephen, and would be instinct take the part of the hunted rather than the forces of English law.’

Cadfael is a Welshman by birth, and was a Crusader before settling down at Shrewsbury Abbey, where for many years he has been in charge of the herb garden. In A Morbid Taste for Bones he accompanies a delegation to his native country to acquire the relics of St Winifred and bring them back to the abbey. Cadfael’s ability to speak Welsh, at a time when the borderline marked a sharp linguistic divide, is significant to the story-line and his ability to be at ease in a wide variety of situations (a useful characteristic in a series hero) is soon evident. The second book in the sequence, One Corpse Too Many (1979) was inspired by Peters’ research into King Stephen’s siege of Shrewsbury castle and the massacre of the garrison in 1138. Cadfael assists with the burials, only to discover that there is one more body than there should have been. Time and again in the Cadfael Chronicles, the borderlands are crucial to the story-line and the herbalist makes regular forays across into Wales. In Dead Man’s Ransom (1984), for instance, his task is to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, while in The Summer of the Danes (1991) he acts as interpreter on a trip to the revived Welsh diocese of St Asaph.

Peters’ humanity and powerful, romantic imagination, is evident throughout a substantial body of work of sustained merit, produced over the course of almost 60 years. So is her love of the borderlands. Her non-series novels, and her under-estimated short stories (many of which I and the late Sue Feder collected in The Trinity Cat and other mysteries, recently published by Crippen & Landru) include a number of gems. But it was in writing about Cadfael and his community that her talent flowered most brilliantly. The sobering thought for any crime writer is that her ‘apprenticeship’ lasted almost four decades….

(An earlier version of this article appeared in Mystery Scene)