Thursday, October 28, 2010
St. Peter's Fair
After reading a novel here and there for many years, I've recently set out to (re)read Ellis Peters' 'Brother Cadfael' series of historical mysteries in its entirety. St. Peter's Fair (1981) is the fourth installment in the series and takes place in Shrewsbury in the summer of 1139 during the period known as The Anarchy.
Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine monk, serves as an herbalist at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury. Far from being an ordinary monk, Cadfael has extensive experience in the outside world and even participated in the First Crusade to liberate the Holy Land. After an adventurous life, he has settled down into quiet contemplation as a man of the cloth. His keen powers of observation and the ability to read people make him well suited to the solving of various crimes--something which he does on a fairly regular basis!
In St. Peter's Fair, we find Shrewsbury still recovering from a siege by the forces of King Stephen the previous summer. It is the eve of the fair of St. Peter (surprise!), an annual event organized by the abbey where merchants from the surrounding regions gather to trade with one another. The fair is lucrative business, both for the merchants and the abbey, which receives a proportion of the profits through various tolls, taxes, and offerings.
The townspeople see their chance to recoup some of the damage done during last summer's seige and approach the abbey to demand that a portion of the tolls and taxes go to repair the town's defenses. The prior refuses, citing the royal charter that grants it the rights to all income from the fair. It is into this tense atmosphere that a throng of traders arrives at the start of the three day fair. There soon erupts a confrontation between a gang of rambunctious Shrewsbury youths and a merchant of some renown. When he is found dead the following day, the abbey (and, of course, Brother Cadfael) is drawn into a plot that could threaten the stability of England as a whole.
Ellis Peters has written another excellent little mystery which is both entertaining and engaging. She does a convincing job of turning a fairly commonplace murder of a merchant into a plot having wide implications for the security of the realm. There isn't much to be said in the way of critique for St. Peter's Fair!