Start Making Sense!

I’m cursed with a mind that wants the elements of a novel to actually make sense. Surprisingly often, there are wide gaps of illogic in the plot of a mystery. This somewhat hampers my enjoyment of the story.

My insistence on a sensible plot also gets in the way of my own writing. When I find myself staring in dismay at a plot I’m concocting, confronted with the realization that there’s a real difficulty, I may have to set the whole project aside, at least for the time being. Occasionally, clarity will later emerge, but no guarantees.

Tonight’s little essay will contain a serious spoiler for one of the Brother Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters. If you don’t want to read the spoiler, stop now.

Still here? Okay. The novel in question is called An Excellent Mystery. This title turns out to be ironic on a couple of counts. First, there is actually no murder in the book. This is very rare in the genre, but it’s kind of cool. There is, however, a mystery.

Now to the spoiler. Two Benedictine brothers arrive at the monastery in Shrewsbury where Brother Cadfael hangs out. The setting is England in the 12th century, and a civil war is going on. The two newcomers, Brother Humilis and Brother Fidelis, are refugees from the destruction of their own monastery off in Winchester. Like Cadfael himself, Brother Humilis came late to his religious calling. Like Cadfael, he was a soldier in the Crusades. Unlike Cadfael, he was horribly wounded. The author treats his condition gracefully, but it’s clear that among other things he has lost his reproductive organs. He is faithfully tended by Brother Fidelis (“faithful,” get it?), a young monk who is mute.

A bunch of stuff happens, involving a young woman who has been missing for three years. She was affianced to Brother Humilis before he took vows. He sent her a message releasing her. We may imagine that the messenger let it be known what his condition was. The young woman then, apparently in disappointment, went off to become a nun, but she never arrived at the nunnery. It’s a mystery! Is she dead?

Of course not. “Brother Fidelis” is actually the young woman. She has disguised herself as a man (or, I suppose, as a teenage boy) and become a Benedictine monk so as to care faithfully for the man she could no longer marry. That’s the substance of the plot. This “young monk” is seen again and again throughout the story, and only at the very end, when the wounded man dies, does the author reveal what has been going on. (I figured it out 50 pages earlier. Ellis Peters is not very subtle about her plotting.)

Here’s the problem, though: Benedictine monks in the 12th century had, really, no possessions of their own, and darn little in the way of privacy. Peters never goes into detail about their need to, uh, urinate and so forth, though in The Sanctuary Sparrow there’s a mention of the monastery’s “lavatorium” and “necessarium.” We can reliably guess that the necessarium didn’t have booths with doors that would close. It was probably a row of holes in a bare plank, and a trough beneath the plank. Anybody who hauled up their robes to use it would be rather visible. And would they have washed only their faces, hands, and feet in the lavatorium? I’d guess they would have disrobed at least partially, some of the time. After all, they’re all men, right? Nothing to hide.

I’m willing to believe the young woman is flat-chested. I’ll even go so far as to agree that somehow none of the other monks notice that she never needs to shave. But, well, there’s another basic difference between men and women.

How is she to dispose of the bloody rags every month, without any of the other monks noticing? Where does she even get the rags? From all we have seen of monastery activities in the Brother Cadfael books, the monks are thrifty, because they’re living in poverty. If a garment gets torn, it gets sewn up again. There are no spare rags just lying around for the taking, and if you only have the one precious rag, you’re going to need to rinse it out several times every month in the lavatorium. Also, not to be gross about it or anything, but one would expect there to be an odor, especially if she’s only washing her hands and feet.

Ellis Peters was the pen name of Edith Pargeter. A woman. She could hardly have been in ignorance of this difficulty. The excellent (?) mystery is really how the monks, one and all, failed for three years to notice that “Brother Fidelis” was menstruating. And perhaps the third excellent mystery, the third irony of the title, is how the author expected that her readers wouldn’t think to ask that question.

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