OBITUARY: Ellis Peters
Monday 16 October 1995
While not the form's creator (that honour must go to the late Lillian de la Torre, the American crime-writer who cleverly transformed Dr Johnson and Boswell into an 18th-century Holmes and Watson, during the course of over 30 highly ingenious short stories), Pargeter was still hugely successful, and this success not only propelled many other writers into trying their hand at similar scenarios, but actually influenced the commercial direction taken by her last publisher. For a period, in the early 1990s, the crime list of Headline was almost entirely devoted to "Mystoricals" set in one era or another.
At a time (the 1970s) when there was a strong vogue for Victorian sleuths, early or late (from Ben Healey's rumbustious Bow Street Runner Jeremy Sturrock to Peter Lovesey's Sergeant Cribb or Donald Thomas's Sergeant Verity), Pargeter deliberately, almost defiantly, went her own way, setting a tale of murder and mystery a full 700 years before then, during the bloody civil war between Stephen and Maud: a fearsome era when, as the ancient chronicler so tellingly put it, "Christ and all his angels slept". This was her 1977 novel A Morbid Taste For Bones (Pargeter had a genius for a clever or arresting title; three others of note being Black is the Colour of My True-Love's Heart, Mourning Raga and A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs).
This, as she termed it, "Medieval whodunnit", written at an age (63) when most women of her generation were just starting to enjoy their retirement, attracted attention and gained enthusiastic reviews. Others followed, all featuring the tough, compassionate but immensely pragmatic (because ex-man-of-blood) Brother Cadfael (pronounced Cad-vile). All were set in or around Shrewsbury, creating in the end, via 20 or so books published over a period of nearly two decades, a minor tourist industry; that part of Shropshire being inevitably dubbed "Brother Cadfael" country, in much the same way that Tyneside is "Catherine Cookson" and the Yorkshire Dales "James Herriot" country.
In making her monkish sleuth (whose specialist knowledge of herbs and simples proved the undoing of many a wolfish wight) an inhabitant of Shrewsbury's Benedictine Abbey of Saints Peter and Paul, Edith Pargeter did not stray far from her roots. She was born, in 1913, in the shadow of the Wrekin, to the east of Shrewsbury in the tiny hamlet of Horsehay, now virtually submerged into the inelegant sprawl of Telford New Town - in which, on a brand-new and pleasantly landscaped estate, Pargeter resided in Cadfael- donated comfort during her latter days.
She was something of a polymath (musicologist, historian, an authority on the Czech language) yet largely self-educated; she never attended university. Instead she spent seven years (1933-40) as a chemist's assistant and wrote in her spare time - successfully, almost from the start.
Nineteen thirty-six was Edith Pargeter's year of miracles. During its course, she appeared in the downmarket 20-Story Magazine and at the same time the thumpingly upmarket Good Housekeeping. She also published two novels, one of which was her first historical, Hortensius, Friend of Nero. At this time the publishers Herbert Jenkins, an industrious supplier of popular, entertaining but essentially undemanding dross to the library trade, unintentionally acted as a kind of nursery for tiro writers. The adventure novelist Ralph Hammond Innes largely taught himself to write, producing cheap thrillers for Jenkins, and Pargeter followed the same path, turning out, as "Jolyon Carr", a number of mainly woman-in-peril suspensers. Here, working for the chemist paid off, giving her (like Agatha Christie in a similar position during the Great War) a useful knowledge of poisons, which she deployed to good effect in Murder in the Dispensary (1938: syrup of chloral) as well as, under yet another pseudonym, "John Redfern", The Victim Needs a Nurse (1940: aconite).
She had a good war. Not only as a Petty Officer in the WRNS, awarded the British Empire Medal "for meritorious service" before the conflict actually ended, but as a writer, publishing her first best-seller, the lightly fictionalised diary of a Wren teleprinter operator at the heart of great events, She Goes To War (1942), a popular and a critical success. This spurred her on to her first major series, the "Eighth Champion of Christendom" trilogy - Lame Crusade (1945), Reluctant Odyssey (1946), Warfare Accomplished (1947) - which describe, in remarkable detail, the Everyman-ish journey of Jim Benison from Dunkirk (as private) to the fall of Singapore (corporal) and finally to Luneberg Heath (sergeant). Contemporary critics were baffled at a young woman's describing with such skill and gritty realism complex technicalities of modern warfare as well as far- flung theatres (the Libyan Desert, Malaya, the Caen-Falaise Gap) to which she had never been. Years later, Pargeter gleefully admitted that, although a certain amount of the detail had come from her own Signals occupation and from friends, most had simply been mugged up from on-the-spot newspaper reports.
She was, like Cadfael (for whom she had a decided tendresse, although nowhere near to the extent that Dorothy Sayers, say, doted on Peter Wimsey), an arch-pragmatist, especially in her professional persona, never contracting for one book when a multi- volume series would do the job better. Her favourite was the "Stone-mason" trilogy - The Heaven Tree (1960), The Green Branch (1962), The Scarlet Seed (1963) - although the "Brothers of Gwynedd" quartet (1974-77) ran it close since it featured another "heart-throb" (her own amused expression), Llewellyn the Great.
Whilst a consummate professional (manuscripts were invariably delivered ahead of time, a sharp eye always kept on contracts), she had, perhaps, her surprising sides. In 1938 she felt guilt and anger at what she considered to be Chamberlain's duplicity over Czechoslovakia, a country for which she developed an abiding passion, celebrated in her 1949 travel book The Coast of Bohemia. She learnt the language, initially with a set of 78rpm "Teach Yourself" records, and did much to promote it, after the war translating over a dozen works by some of the country's most distinguished writers, including Jan Neruda's Tales of the Little Quarter (1957) and Joseph Bor's small-scale tragic masterpiece about the extraordinary Verdi concert at Auschwitz, The Terezn Requiem (1963). In 1968 she was awarded the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations Gold Medal "for services to Czech literature". This she probably appreciated rather more than the awards she received from the Mystery Writers of America (an "Edgar" in 1962) or the British Crime Writers Association (a "Silver Dagger" in 1980).
If Edith Pargeter had a message in her oeuvre - her mainstream novels as well as the Cadfael books and her earlier "Felse family" mysteries - it was that by and large mankind was not entirely irredeemable. Yet she was not pious. Indeed, she had an interesting streak of balefulness in her make-up: her 1965 short story "Tour of the Castle", for instance, features an extremely nasty revenge, and she could on occasion describe in the most full-blooded manner violence and horror and brutality. When she was 82 her right leg was amputated at the knee. This was entirely unregretted ("after the hell it had caused me!" she wrote). She was a tough old bird.
Her Cadfael books will be recognised by genre historians as pioneering works. Perhaps she pulled her punches when it came to describing the real muck and blood and stench of the Middle Ages (her successors, however, such as the multi-pseudonymed Paul Doherty, at times went quite the other way), and perhaps too, latterly, her emphasis on the goodness of her characters was overdone. Even so, she redefined the form by avoiding irony in her work (all right in others' books; not in hers) and concentrating on the alien quality of the past ("they do things differently" as L.P. Hartley famously remarked), while at the same time pointing up the essential continuity of the human condition. And she always wrote, whatever the genre, with absolute conviction.
Edith Mary Pargeter (Ellis Peters), writer: born Horsehay, Shropshire 28 September 1913; BEM 1944; OBE 1994; died Madeley, Shropshire 14 October 1995.
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