Having read (mostly) Summer Of The Danes by Ellis Peters, I come away with a mixed bag of opinions. The mystery at the heart of the novel was not intriguing enough to make me want to read all the way to the end; on the other hand, the characters are likable and intriguing, and the writing is fine, with good old-school paragraph-descriptions of characters as they are introduced, and with efficient paragraph-length details describing each new scene. Here’s an example of Peters introducing one of the book’s characters:
“The bishop was not at all like his fellow from St. Asaph. Instead of the tall, dignified Gilbert, self-consciously patrician and austere without, and uneasily insecure within, here was small, round , bustling cleric in his forties, voluble of speech but very much to the point, rapid of movement and a little disheveled and shaggy, with a sharp eye and a cheerfully pouncing manner, like a boisterous but businesslike hound on a scent. His pleasure in the very fact of their coming on such an errand was made very plain, and outweighed even his delight in the breviary Mark had brought him, though clearly he hand an eye for a handsome script, and turned the leaves with lovingly delicate movements of thick, strong fingers.”
I was happy to experience the English language as used by someone with a facility for choosing the right word, even if that word is multisyllabic. And the author does a good job of providing erudite and detailed descriptions without becoming overly long or excessively florid.
After lately reading a few books very much in the modern style (like Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn), I was pleased to find a book not riddled with curse words and crudities, irony and cynicism. There is a gracefulness to Peter’s writing that is sorely lacking in today’s prose.
Summer Of The Danes is a mystery novel, one crafted in the old-fashioned romance tradition– though leaning a bit more toward the Danielle Steele side of the genre in a paragraph or two than I cared for.
More than just its unusual sweetness and grace sets Peters’ work apart from other successful mystery novels. The star of the book (actually, the star of the long series of books from Peters) is Brother Cadfael, a Welsh monk living in 12th century England. He serves as the “detective” in the series, though he is older than most mystery novel protagonists, and quite a bit more celibate. He is a former warrior and also his monastery’s resident herbalist– both realms of knowledge coming in handy during those times when life happens to throw in his path the odd murder mystery.
The best description that comes to my mind of Cadfael is this: Angela Lansbury from Murder, She Wrote — as written by Walter Scott. Cadfael makes a pretty good Lansbury; he is older, maintains his composure, is good-hearted and not driven by greed or lust; and, like Lansbury’s character, he is almost always under-estimated– though actually extremely insightful, observant, and wise.
Peters is excellent at the biased introduction of a new character. She slants her prose to make us feel about a character just as she wants us to feel at that moment for the sake of the mystery she is webbing. Take this example of the introduction of a none-too-pleasant emissary (and you can see here, too, the solid –but not showy– use of vocabulary):
He was a… “tall, broad-shouldered, powerful man, black-haired and black-moustached, with an arrogant beak of a nose, and a bearing truculent rather than concillatory. He swept with with long strides into the center of the open space fronting the dais, and made an elaborate obeisance, in the general direction of prince and bishop. The gesture seemed to Cadfael to tend rather to the performer’s own aggrandizement than to any particular reverence for those saluted. He had everyone’s attention, and meant to retain it.”
Peters provides many fine descriptions in the novel, all in keeping with her graceful tone and style:
“The night was dark, without a moon, but the stars filled it with a distant, blue glimmer that showed where occasional shadows crossed from building to building, making for their rest. The babel of the day was now an almost-silence, now and then quivering to the murmur of low voices tranquilly exchanging goodnights, rather a tremor on the air than an audible sound. There was no wind. Even the softest of movements vibrated along the cords of the senses, making silence eloquent.”
Unfortunately for my own tastes in fiction– but quite fortunate for other readers– Peters’ novel tended a little too much toward the paperback romance genre for me. Take this example of the confident heroine (Heledd) meeting– and begrudgingly being attracted to– the strong, bad boy:
“At the last moment [he] stepped between them and lifted the girl into the saddle with his own large and potentially predatory hands, with a courtesy so elaborate that it glittered into insolence; and worse, Heledd accepted the service with a gracious inclination of her head and a cool, reserved smile, ambiguous between chaste reproof and discreet mischief.”
Actually, the following passage shows you even better what I mean:
“Suddenly the tiny open glade was boiling with large, bare-armed, fair-haired, leather-girt men, and out of the thicket facing him erupted an even larger man, a young giant, head and shoulders above Cadfael’s sturdy middle height, laughing so loudly that the hitherto silent woods rang and re-echoed with his mirth, and clutching in his arms a raging Heledd, kicking and struggling with all her might, but making small impression. The one hand she had free had already scored its nails down her captor’s cheek, and was tugging and tearing in his long flaxen hair, until he turned and stooped his head and took her wrist in his teeth and held it– large, even, white teeth that had shone as he laughed and now barely dented Heledd’s smooth skin. It was astonishment, neither fear nor pain, that caused her suddenly to lie still in his arms, crooked fingers gradually unfolding in bewilderment. But when he released her to laugh again, she recovered her rage, and struck at him furiously, pounding her fist vainly against his broad chest.”
But balancing these sorts of escapades (where the young, pretty heroine is literally swept off her feet) is the soft-spoken wisdom conveyed by some of the characters, usually Brother Cadfael. It is only Cadfael whose interior dialogue we, the reader, get to overhear. The rest of the cast is described with biased third person descriptions, their motives often assigned to them in order to prejudice the reader for the sake of keeping the plot pleasantly twisted. Of course, as the mystery unfolds, assigned motives may prove to be wrong and (purposefully) misleading.
Here’s Cadfael’s wise ruminations upon the kind and noble heart of a younger monk naturally displayed when word is received that a man, father of children, has died:
“Cadfael marked the first focus of the fledgling priest’s concern, and approved it. Not: ‘Unshriven and in peril!’ not even: ‘When did he last confess and find absolution?’ but: ‘Who will care for his little ones?’
Unusually for the book, one of favorite pieces of wisdom comes not from the lips or thoughts of Cadfael but from a brave and loyal fighting man by the name of Cuhelyn: “There is no one who cannot be hated, against whatever odds. Nor anyone who cannot be loved, against all reason.”
If you like romance novels and mystery stories, and you’re craving a story that’s more old-fashioned, gentle, and graceful than the common lot nowadays, then I’d recommend checking out Peters’ story (or stories) of the intrepid and insightful Brother Cadfael.