St. Peter’s Fair is the fourth book in the popular Medieval mystery series featuring Benedictine Monk Brother Cadfael. As a child, my father was a huge fan of these books and the TV series based on the books starring Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael. In fact I remember (vaguely) visiting the town of Shrewsbury, where the books are set, on one of our trips to England because of his interest in the series. I sadly remember very little of Shrewsbury but I do have fond memories of the TV series and in fact have recently been re-watching on Netflix.
So I was glad to find the audio version of much of Ellis Peter’s series offered by my local library. Unfortunately they did not have volumes 1-3, so despite the fact that I normally HATE to read a series out of order I went ahead and checked this out hoping my familiarity with TV series would help fill in any gaps. In the end while I would have preferred to start with book one, I in no way felt lost or that I had missed out on crucial character development. It’s obvious that one of the earlier books introduced Hugh Beringar to his wife and I did feel sorry to have not had that background but it wasn’t a huge impediment as Peters does a good job weaving in Hugh and his wife and the nature of their relationship.
Synopsis: Merchants from all over England and Wales are gathering in Shrewsbury for St. Peter’s Fair, a 3 day bazaar that benefits the Abbey. Hanging over the fair are two conflicts: 1) the townsfolk are upset not to be included in the profits of the fair as the town has recently been damaged by warfare, and 2) said warfare between King Stephen and Empress Maude is waging over the throne of England and has people taking sides or ducking to stay out of the way. Pretty immediately a fight breaks out between townsfolk and merchants with merchant Thomas of Bristol and young townsperson Philip Corverser (?) being at the epicenter. When the Thomas of Bristol is found murdered, suspicion rests on the quickly focuses on Philip but Cadfael suspects that something more complex is afoot. He must figure out what is going on quickly, with the help of Hugh Beringar, because Thomas of Bristol’s beautiful and clever niece seems to be at the eye of the storm.
I highly enjoyed the book. Peters had to manage a pretty large cast of characters and she does this deftly I think. There were times I briefly could not match the rather involved names with the “face” per se but her characters were distinct enough the confusion was always very momentary and I’m not sure it would have even been an issue if I had been reading rather than listening. Each character has a part to play in a convoluted mystery involving many red herrings and political intrigue. Convoluted it as it was, I did figure out the solution fairly early but I can’t say for sure that this wasn’t because of watching the TV program.
I very much appreciated the depiction of life in Medieval England which I think is portrayed naturally and innately as part of the narrative. Facts and the history of the time are not awkwardly shoehorned in but are simply woven into the story for the readers to absorb without really registering its happening. This book is very character focused –– and it is through the characters - their dress and actions – that most of the setting comes to life.
The real strength of the book and the series is Cadfael. He’s had an interesting life before entering the monastery and in many ways relishes the quiet routine of a monk. However, his sharp and endlessly curious mind paired with a strong sense of compassion and conscience draw him into the intrigues that seem to happen on a quite regular schedule at or near the Abbey. Cadfael’s talent is for observing and reading people He, and thence the book, radiates a wise, peaceful assurance – you feel you are in good hands and so you are with Ellis Peters.
The choice of a female narrator for a book whose main protagonist is male could be odd but Johanna Ward does a great job. She has a lovely voice and inflects it well. I appreciate her attempt, mostly successful, at rendering Cadfael’s Welsh accent as that was not something Derek Jacobi tried. I highly recommend listening to this while doing yard work or puttering about in the garden - possibly my favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of the herb gardens and Cadfael’s apothecary.