The Leper of St. Giles


Ellis Peters


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

May 6, 2021

t is October of 1139, the harvest season is upon the citizens of Shrewsbury, and Brother Cadfael is out and about. Everyone is eager to look at a procession that is coming to the Abbey, because a great lord and beautiful wealthy woman are to be wed there. The people line the road to get a glimpse of their betters. First comes the entourage of Baron Huon de Domville, a wealthy old man of sour disposition - when the lepers press forward for alms, Domville lashes out with his riding crop to force them back. Behind Domville ride his three squires - Joseclin, Guy, and Domville's heir, his nephew Simon. Later in the day, the bride arrives, the young and beautiful Lady Iveta de Massard who has inherited the vast tracts of land of Guimar de Massard, a famous crusader who died in battle in the Holy Land. Lady Iveta rides between her guardians, the scheming Picards, her uncle Godfrid and his cruel wife Agnes, who will profit handsomely when she is wed. The wedding will be a great ceremony, everyone will enjoy the feast, and it will bring a joyous end to the harvest season.

Yet when the wedding ceremony commences, Domville does not appear. Is he merely late? Concern grows, search parties are sent out - and the body of Domville is found dead by a forest track, strangled. What foul villain could have killed the groom, and why? It is up to Brother Cadfael to piece together the solution, by keenly observing human actions, and using his worldly understanding of human nature.

The Leper of St. Giles is the fifth installment of the Brother Cadfael series. Once again our favorite monk happens to be at the right place at the right time to observe the clues that will reveal the truth. The biggest joy of this series is the verisimilitude that Peters brings to her tales. When Peters tells you that the road forks at the Foregate before heading off into the forest, you can believe that the 12th century road truly followed that path. Indeed, I bet that a tourist to Shrewsbury today would find the locations from the Brother Cadfael novels all mapped out. No doubt there is a tour you can take to see each murder scene, to explore Cadfael's herb garden, and admire the famous Abbey. (Indeed, I just did a search and see that Shropshire Tours offers exactly that service.) The Leper of St. Giles was published in 1981. I can easily imagine Ellis Peters walking through the Shrewsbury countryside forty years ago, looking at the old buildings and dreaming up mystery plots. She probably returned multiple times because her descriptions ring so true about the landscape. Peters had a knack for making 12th century England come alive, the characters speech and actions are different from our own yet still easily recognizable.

Here is Cadfael describing Domville: "This baron has a famous name, but I know no more of him, except he is in good odour, they say, with the king. I think I may have known an old kinsman of the lady. But whether she is from the same line is more than I know."

Here Cadfael observes the squire Joscelin: The eyes, now conning Cadfael rather warily over the rim of the cup, were as radiantly blue as Cadfael remembered them from St. Giles, like cornflowers in a wheat-field. He did not look like a deceiver or a seducer, rather like an overgrown schoolboy, honest, impatient, clever after his fashion, and probably unwise. Cleverness and wisdom are not inevitable yoke-fellows.

Cadfael enters the hamlet of Thornsbury: Small, remote and poor, a place for hard-working men, but for all that, with plentiful fuel all around, and excellent poaching, which Cadfael judged might well be a communal enterprise here. Plentiful timber of all kinds, too, for the wheelwright's craft. Elm, essential for the stock, oak, to provide the cleft hardwood for the spokes, with the grain unbroken, and springy, supple ash to make the curved felloes of the rim, they were all here at hand.

I know nothing about building wooden wheels, but Peters concise description certainly makes it sound as though she understands wheel construction, and this makes her writing believable. With precise. descriptive paragraphs and the careful selected words spoken by her characters, Peters paints a convincing portrait of medieval England. This is what makes the Brother Cadfael novels entertaining, the meticulous world-building.

The Leper of St. Giles was voted #43 on the 1990 list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time as selected by the British-based Crime Writers' Association. #1 on the list is A Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, which I have never even heard of - I wonder if I should check that out...