Books, characters, critiquing, fiction, world-building

Brother Cadfael, or, What Makes a Good Series

I think I first discovered Brother Cadfael through PBS, the series they did based on the books by Ellis Peters. It only took me a few episodes, though, before I was determined to find the books and read through them. That was years and years ago, and I have yet to read the entire series. That is not, however, due to a lack of interest; rather, I am reading them and collecting them as slowly as possible so as to prolong my enjoyment in them as long as possible.

So what is it about this mystery series, featuring a medieval monk with an adventurous past and an insatiable curiosity, that intrigues me so?

Aside from the brilliantly-drawn Cadfael himself, there are a few other reasons:

Good recurring characters: Not just Cadfael, but all the other recurring characters in the series are three-dimensional. They pursue their own lives, their own interests, have things happen to them, and interact with Our Hero very naturally.

Good side characters: These aren’t so much recurring characters as a nice bit of continuity – the goldsmith, for one, who features in one story, and then a few stories later we hear of him again in passing. Same with the corvisor’s son, and many others. Since these mysteries are all set in medieval times, when travel was difficult and most people lived and died in the same place their entire lives, this makes everything more believable, and contributes to the sense of feeling at home in Shrewsbury each time you read.

Good fleshing out of all characters: And to finish off the character studies – even the one-shot characters, the ones who only feature in one mystery and then vanish forever, are well-developed. Very few of them are flat or cardboard – in fact, that is one of my complaints about the PBS series, because they tend to reduce many of the one-shot characters to wooden caricatures instead of the real people Peters made them to be.

On to more specifics …

Good job moving from Abbott Heribert (lazy and easygoing) and Prior Robert (hard and uncompromising) to Father Radalfus: The first couple of books had the Father Abbott as a simple-hearted, simple-minded soul, easy for Cadfael to manipulate so he could do whatever he wanted in solving mysteries. In contrast, the Prior was cold, proud, and had a strong dislike for Cadfael, and went out of his way to make things difficult for the monk. Pretty stereotyped, wouldn’t you agree? But then Peters had Heribert demoted and brought in a new Abbott – Radalfus, who is clever, wise, just, uncompromising, understanding, and savvy. At times he is more than willing to give Cadfael freedom, but other times he imposes strict restrictions on him, and there’s nothing Cadfael can do about it. Prior Robert is reduced to a minor nuisance, and the entire situation is saved from mundane to clever.

Good with changing Cadfael’s helpers frequently – both introducing new sidekicks and keeping true to established canon: Cadfael tends to get novices as his helpers, and as they grow and pursue their studies, they move on, and he is supplied with a new assistant. This helps to keep things fresh and change things up without having to kill anyone off, and also makes sense given the Benedictine order. Another area where the PBS series slipped up – their Brother Oswin had the LONGEST novitiate known to man!

It’s not a perfect series – I get frustrated when book after book features a “villain” who is not truly guilty of desiring evil, but was just misguided. That works for one or two, but after a while it gets old. This was especially true in the book where a boy murdered an injured, helpless old man, but it was excused by Cadfael as “he was mad with love and grief.” Um, sorry, don’t buy that as a reason to let him escape to Wales. Don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in mercy triumphing over justice, but there are limits.

There are other flaws as well, but overall, it is a thoroughly enchanting series.

And I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet! Hugh Beringar is EXCELLENT. No mere Watson to Cadfael’s Holmes (although Martin Freeman would make an awesome Hugh, but then, what role wouldn’t he be awesome in?), Hugh is clever and dangerous in his own right. He and Cadfael aren’t always on the same side – Cadfael serves the church, while Hugh serves the king and law of England – but they respect each other and work well together. And Hugh is a brilliant swordsman, too, which automatically gives him an extra 50 Points of Awesomeness.

Are you familiar with Brother Cadfael? What are some series that set up good examples of ways to keep the writing fresh and exciting for readers no matter how many books are in the series? Do you agree that, in murder mysteries of any sort, every now and then the villain HAS to be villainous?

2 thoughts on “Brother Cadfael, or, What Makes a Good Series”

  1. I was about to chew you out for the phrase "mere Watson" but then you immediately made up for it by acknowledging that there isn't anything Martin Freeman wouldn't be Awesome at, so you're okay.Adult mysteries. Dangit, if I ever start reading again in large quantities, I'm SO going to catch up on the adult mysteries genre….

  2. Whew, glad I redeemed myself there. I probably should have said "mere Hastings to Cadfael's Poirot," since in my opinion, Hastings is far more the stereotypical "idiot sidekick" than Watson – though Conan Doyle IS fairly brutal to Watson in some of the stories.

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