Thursday, May 17, 2012

Review of The Raven in the Foregate by Ellis Peters

Saying something negative about Ellis Peters is tantamount to criticizing Agatha Christie. Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, set in twelfth century England, has been made into a television series featuring Derek Jacobi as the monk/sleuth, is evidence of just how popular her work is.

Still, the twelfth novel The Raven in the Foregate doesn’t quite measure up to the standards set by the previous eleven books.

Set at Christmas in 1141, Abbot Radulfus returns from a meeting with the bishop with a young priest Ailnoth, assigned to the parish of the Holy Cross. Ailnoth quickly makes himself unpopular by his strict, overzealous and selfish ways. It isn’t long before half the village has reason to hate him. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to the reader when his body is discovered in the mill pond with a wound to the back of his head.

Could it have been the baker whom Ailnoth accused of cheating his customers? Or could it have been the father of the baby who died shortly after birth unshriven because the priest refused to interrupt his own prayers? Or maybe it was the sympathizers to Empress Maud who has been beaten back by her cousin King Stephen in her efforts to overtake the throne?

It is only Brother Cadfael who can sort through the murky clues to discover what really happened to the priest, but he seems to spend as much time investigating the death of Ailnoth as he does sheltering the young man whose aunt accompanied the priest to Shrewsbury. Since Cadfael has no allegiance to either King Stephen or Empress Maud, he knows that the current public opinion is in favor of the king and the young man is ready to take up arms for Maud.

The conclusion of the mystery is almost a disappointment, as it seems that Cafael, usually extremely observant, should miss an important clue that reveals the truth until the last moment. As in previous novels, he’s pieced together fragments of clues and used his keen intelligence to figure it out.

Another aspect is a ruse by Hugh Beringar to ferret out the murderer. It’s out of character for the shrewd sheriff and it falls flat. One wonders why Peters included this in the story.

The Raven in the Foregate just didn’t have the magic of most Peters’ novels.


Sarah L said...

Well, people do criticize Agatha Christie; one guy seemed to make a career of it. Anyway, I find your comments interesting. I like this particular book, but am no author, and cannot analyze the story as you have. I saw the Sheriff's ploy as the way to get the needed person talking, and that worked. The one witness to the death was a man who never spoke up, and who saw the violent death as the will of God. Very 12th century, I thought.

I tried improving (by making it shorter) the plot summary on Wikipedia. That was a challenge, to pull the plot lines from the story, for me, so I did not succeed. In this book, I kept seeing the roots of the Reformation, a large force reacting to a too-powerful church, without getting a firm hold on why I was seeing those roots so clearly. I did see the effect of the Anarchy on real people, in the romance of Ninian and Sanan, and the risks taken by Diota.

You see Hugh as treating people better than he did by using that ruse, is that it? Yet the man was already known for the cruel half of himself, abandoning his wife for his fancy girls. A delicate moral point, perhaps.8

Thanks for your post! Sorry I am so long in finding it.

Alan Scott said...

Thank you for your comments, Sarah L. My problem with Hugh and his ruse is that he's never done something like this before, to take such a risk. Cadfael has often set traps for the murderer but nothing as callous as accusing an innocent man of murder in public.

I'm glad you liked my post!