Ellis Peters: The Leper of Saint Giles

The Leper of Saint Giles
Ellis Peters
First published in the UK 1981, Macmillan London Ltd
This edition 2000, Warner Books
ISBN: 0751511056
223 pages
Score 4/5

Quite an ecclesiastical feel this month, with Ellis Peters and G. K. Chesterton turning up in my reading list.

I read A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first Cadfael novel, last week, and moved swiftly on to number five, which also appears in the CWA Top 100.

It’s now 1139, two years after the journey to Wales described in A Morbid Taste. Cadfael is still happy in his Shrewsbury herbarium, now assisted by the clumsy Brother Oswin. His erstwhile helper Brother Mark is now installed at the nearby leper chapel of Saint Giles, which is where the story begins.

An image of Saint Gile’s Church from the Shropshire Archives. More information about the history of Shrewsbury can be found at http://www.discovershropshire.org.uk/

The plot centres on a marriage of convenience scheduled to take place in Shrewsbury Abbey. The Norman Baron Huon de Domville is to marry Iveta de Massard, unifying the lands their families control. Iveta has no relatives on her father’s family so is a charge of her unpleasant maternal uncle and aunt, the Picards. Domville is a nasty piece of work, much too old for his child-bride Iveta.

‘A massive, brutal face, muscled like a wrestler’s arm, unsculpted, unfinished. A face that should not have had a subtle mind behind it, to make the man even more formidable, but undoubtedly had.’

Domville’s first act in Shrewsbury is to strike a newly arrived and mysterious leper known only as Lazarus, an act even his own retinue finds shocking.

Meanwhile, one of Domville’s three squires, Joscelin Lucy, loves Iveta and is determined to extricate her from marrying Domville. The Picards get wind of this and have him dismissed and then accused of theft. The stage is set for a murder…

There are obvious similarities between Leper and Morbid Taste. Both have a young man, wrongfully accused of murder, who evades capture but has to remain nearby because he’s in love. In fact in both books, uniting lovers is Cadfael’s object as much as solving murders. There are other similarities I won’t discuss as I don’t want to give the game away.

However, the investigative aspects to this story are more interesting than in the first novel. Cadfael’s scene-of-crime work actually leads somewhere this time around, and he does some spadework to earn the solution, instead of simply frightening the culprits into a confession.

The leper-house is lightly described, which is an approach I greatly prefer in historical novels – nothing is more annoying than research piled on with a trowel. And Peters is a gifted writer, creating some effective action scenes as well as some affecting moments of stillness. The scenes depicting the growing friendship between Lazarus and Joscelin are especially good.

A much stronger book than the first.

Final destination: Back to the library

Creative Commons License
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
This entry was posted in Classic mystery book review, History-mystery, Witness Statements and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Ellis Peters: The Leper of Saint Giles

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Rich – I agree with you about the need to balance historical authenticity with a focus on the story – the mystery – rather than too much focus on historical information. Not an easy balance and I think Peters/Pargeter does so quite well. I have to admit too to a sneaking fondness for Brother Oswin; I’m glad he gets a stronger role in this novel.


  2. Maxine says:

    Sounds very interesting. I read one of her books years ago when staying at a friends’ house – they recommended her and lent me a paperback which I read during the weekend I was there. I did like it but felt a rather formula element to it which did not encourage me to read more. I did like it a lot more than The Name of the Rose (Eco), though – far less pretentious!! (NOTR has lots and lots of intellectual discourse etc in it, but at the end of the day the mystery is feeble, as is often the case when “literary giants” turn their hands to the genre, thinking it is easy, I have found).


  3. Sarah says:

    I can actually remember the TV adaptation of this book more than I can remember the novel. It’s a nice story and I do like to read a Cadfael book now and then. I believe she is quite a tourist industry in Shrewsbury.


  4. Judy Buck-Glenn, Philadelphia, PA, USA says:

    I read a number of these mysteries, but then I had a moment of illumination similar to the one I had when I realized that plot turns in American soap operas are ALWAYS based on the same scenario: someone does not tell someone else something which any half-way sentient being would have done as a matter of course. In the case of the Brother Cadfael books, I suddenly realized that the endlessly-repeating plot device is that a charming young couple is divided and reunited. And just as I immediately had to stop watching soaps (no loss there), I had to stop reading the books. Which is more of a pity, as I do like “being” in the Middle Ages. But I have not even checked out the TV shows. Done is done.


    • westwoodrich says:

      So the young lovers always appear? I probably only noticed because I read the books back-to-back, but it was very obvious.

      Not quite medieval, but if you like a historical mystery I always recommend Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, set in the mid 17th century. And have you tried the C J Sansoms?


      • Judy Buck-Glenn, Philadelphia, PA, USA says:

        I may have been too immersed in the considerable enjoyment of Brother Cadfael’s herb garden to be as quick to spot the eternal return of the star-crossed lovers as I might have been, but I believe they always do. However, come to think of it, I think it was a back-to-back reading of a couple of the books that did it for me. Taken one at a time, spread out over time, it is less annoyingly noticeable. Once you notice, really NOTICE, the teeth are set on edge. At least they are if they are my teeth. Others may find the romance all part of the charm.

        I have not tried either author, though I have certainly heard of The Instance of the Fingerpost. I will do so. Thank you!


  5. Pingback: Pick of the month: August 2012 | Past Offences

  6. Judy Buck-Glenn, Philadelphia, PA, USA says:

    I just want to say thank you for the recommendation of CJ Sansom. I am currently reading Dissolutions. and it is just superb–a terrific mystery, wonderfully written, and a delightful central character. And I feel well up on my Tudor period, so it’s a great read for the depiction of the actual historical characters. Though between Wolf Hall and this lies a great abyss in the portrayal of Thomas Cromwell.


Make a statement...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s