At the start of my review of Peters’ The Virgin in the Ice, I wrote that it was my first Brother Cadfael mystery but I doubted that it would be my last. The Leper of Saint Giles is my second Cadfael book and I can say for sure that it will not be my last. Everything I praised in the last book is also present in this one so I don’t feel the need to go over those aspects again. The differences are intriguing in a number of ways.
On the whole, I would say The Leper of Saint Giles is superior to The Virgin in the Ice. It feels more focused and unified. This is especially true when it comes to the mystery and detection aspects. In this book, the puzzle is rock solid and carefully worked out. While I admit I’m not too sharp when it comes to figuring out mysteries, I was genuinely startled by the big revelation. The Virgin in the Ice switched genres after a certain point and became an adventure. Peters threw in a grand conclusion to wrap up the mystery and it was all very well done, but she didn’t seem particularly interested in that part of her story, at least not by the end. That didn’t really damage my enjoyment of the book. Peters was clearly a virtuoso with prose and her style was more than capable of getting readers to ignore plot weaknesses. Still, it is an extra pleasure to read Peters’ masterful prose anchored to a more carefully wrought story.
I notice that in my review of The Virgin in the Ice, I briefly wished Cadfael himself had been more present in the book since he was such an appealing character. Well, I didn’t get my wish in this one! However, I think that was actually a good thing. I recall reading about some fictional detectives who were not really the protagonists in their own books. That always confused me but I think I understand this aesthetic approach now. Cadfael is really a supporting character in The Leper of Saint Giles. He figures out the mystery but the story is not about him. This allows him to function almost as a kind of audience surrogate and this successfully magnifies the human drama of the plot. On the subject of likable characters, one of this book’s few flaws is the absence of the charming Hugh Beringar, Cadfael’s primary police contact. In one short passage, Cadfael regrets that Beringar is unavailable. He wasn’t the only one!
With a mystery, I’m especially reluctant to reveal plot details. I’m going to hold to that but I want to mention certain aspects of the finale. There are discoveries that, while no more unbelievable than something in your average summer blockbuster film, are squarely in the realm of melodrama. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. If Ellis Peters had been an average author, the melodrama would have been entertaining and forgettable. Peters was a remarkable author, however. She skillfully used reticence and an incredible instinct for proper emphasis to turn effective melodrama into something approaching tragedy. Instead of just enjoying a fun read, I found myself meditating on issues of pride, sacrifice, and waste. This ability to combine entertaining plot hijinks with weighty themes, uniting them with stylish prose and easing readers just looking for a good time into something a bit more serious without alienating them, is a rare and valuable one. Young writers would do well to try and learn it from Peters.