27 September 2016

Review: The Hermit of Eyton Forest by Ellis Peters

Genre: Historical mystery.
Themes: Deception, escape, forced marriage, murder.
Reading challenge: What's in a Name, the book with a profession in the title, and my final book for this challenge.

I was planning to read a piece of social history, What the Butler Saw: Two hundred and fifty years of the servant problem, for this challenge, but looking over my bookshelves I spotted the 8 books I had left to read in the Brother Cadfael historical mystery series, and couldn't resist picking the next one as the final book in the challenge: The Hermit of Eyton Forest.

Now, some might say that being a hermit is a religious vocation rather than a profession, but in fact there once existed a professional class of ornamental or garden hermits. They were men who were specifically hired and paid to live in hermitages or other suitable structures on great estates and to be full-time hermits for a given length of time, generally seven years.

I read the previous book in the series, The Rose Rent, in September 2012. Coming back to Cadfael after an absence of four years was like running into an old friend and immediately falling into the camaraderie you had when you last met, many years ago.

Two plots intertwine in the story: There is the young boy entrusted by his ailing father to the abbot for education and upbringing and to keep him away from his scheming, ambitious grandmother, and then there is the newly arrived holy man, the hermit of the title, and his young assistant, who may or may not be an escaped villein with his lord in hot pursuit. Then there is the matter of a guest at the abbey who shows mysterious behaviour, and the civil war looms in the background. There is also the inevitable romance sub-plot.

Peters' style is as skilful as ever, and the book was a joy to read, even if I pretty much foresaw every plot revelation before it happened. This is perhaps because she, unlike for example Agatha Christie, plays fair with the reader. There are no red herrings dragged across the trail here, just a fair laying-out of the facts and no twisting of narrative conventions. The joy of reading a book like this is not in the who or even the why, but how the author resolves the mystery.

In other words: If you are conversant with the genre you can pretty much guess what's going to happen before it happens, but don't let that stop you from reading it because it's a satisfying read.

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