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Saturday 7 August 2021

The Golden Age: Ellis Peters (1913-1995)

 by Carol Westron

Although to crime readers she is best known as Ellis Peters, she was also a well-known and successful writer under her own name, Edith Pargeter. She also had three other, less famous and swiftly abandoned pseudonyms, Jolyon Carr, John Redfern and Peter Benedict.

Peters was the youngest of three children, born just before the outbreak of the First World War, in a village in the heart of the Shropshire coalfields. Her older brother's name was Ellis, and when she became established as a mystery writer, Peters adopted this as her pen name. Peters came from a respectable, high-achieving, working class family; her father was a clerk and time-keeper and her brother later became an engineer. Peters' mother encouraged her children to love music, art and writing. Peters attended the local village school and then passed the examinations to receive a free place at Coalbrookdale High School for Girls. She loved art, writing and Latin but hated mathematics, which resulted in her failing to gain a place in the executive division of the civil service. She worked in various jobs, including the Women Labour exchange, before settling as the chemist assistant and dispenser at Bemrose the chemist in Dawley. She enjoyed her work and the opportunity it gave her to meet a wide variety of local people.

It was at this time that her first books were published. Under her own name, Edith Pargeter, she wrote Hortensius, Friend of Nero (1936), which she had originally written when she was just fifteen; Iron-Bound (1936); and The City Lies Four-Square (1939.) During this time she also wrote another six books, all under male pseudonyms. The first was Day Star (1937) writing as Peter Benedict. As Jolyon Carr she wrote Murder in the Dispensary (1938); Freedom for Two (1939); Masters of the Parachute Mail (1940) and Death Comes by Post (1940), which were first published as serials in a local newspaper. In 1940, as John Redfern, she wrote The Victim Needs a Nurse. These early works received no recognition when Peters became a well known and respected mystery writer and are very hard to come by (second-hand editions are listed for a minimum of £150 on Amazon.) Even her publisher, Ralph Spurrier, had not realised that she was the author of the Jolyon Carr books until shortly before her death. In 1999, with the permission of Peters' estate, he reprinted Murder in the Dispensary as a limited edition of 350 books.

In 1940, soon after the outbreak of the 2nd World War, Peters applied to join the Women's Royal Naval Service. Because she worked in the dispensary in a chemist's shop she was regarded as being in a 'reserved occupation' and was rejected, so she resigned from her 'day job' and listed her occupation as 'author.' She was then accepted; as she wryly remarked, 'authors were clearly expendable.' She was posted to Devonport and then Liverpool, where she spent most of the war, throughout heavy bombing. She achieved the rank of Petty Officer and was awarded the British Empire Medal. Between 1940 and 1944 she wrote a Wartime trilogy, under her own name, Edith Pargeter, which gained her some recognition.

In 1945 she left the WRNS and returned to Shropshire. Her father had died and she lived quietly with her mother and brother until the former's death. She continued to live with her brother and neither of them married. Peters made it clear that she wished to devote her life to writing, not to married life or bringing up a family.

Peters and her brother had a great interest in Czechoslovakia and felt, as many people in Britain did, that the British Government had let Czechoslovakia down. She taught herself Czechoslovakian and translated and published many books, as well as visiting the country several times. She was awarded the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations gold medal and ribbon in 1968. Her mystery novel, The Piper on the Mountain (1966) was set partly in Czechoslovakia. Peters was also passionate about education and she and her brother Ellis were very active in the WEA (Workers' Educational Association) and helped to establish the Shropshire Adult Education College at Attringham Park. She also played a great part in setting up an Adult Education music college.

In 1951 Peters wrote Fallen into the Pit, the first of her murder mysteries featuring George Felse, his wife Bunty and his son Dominic. This book was originally published under Edith Pargeter's own name, but by the early 1960s all the mystery books that followed were published under her new pseudonym, Ellis Peters, and Fallen into the Pit has always been reprinted using this name, as have other 1950s mysteries.

Fallen into the Pit is set at the end of the 2nd World War, in the Shropshire coalfields, bordering Wales. It was the countryside that was part of Peters' very being and her opening sentence pierces straight to the heart of the way so many young men felt when they returned to their homes after years of War. 'The war ended, and the young men came home, and tried indignantly to fit themselves into old clothes and old habits which proved, on examination, to be both a little threadbare, and on trial to be both cripplingly small for bodies and minds mysteriously grown in absence.' It is clear that Peters knew the people of her county as well as she did her countryside.

When young men return to the village of Comerford in Midshire, they find themselves living and working alongside 'Ukranians, Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Letts... and soon came even the few screened Germans out of their captivity to fester among their ex-enemies without being able to reunite them. Nice-looking, stolid young men, hard workers, a good type; but they did not always remember to keep the old “Heil Hitler!” off their tongues; and the leftward-inclined youngster with Welsh blood in his veins and a brother dead in some Stalag or other was liable to notice these things.' It is Sergeant George Felse's unenviable job to keep the peace in this
district and, at first he is uncertain whether Helmut Schauffler, a German POW who elected to remain in Britain, is deliberately provoking the young men he works with or is the victim of prejudice and misunderstanding. When Schauffler is found dead, George Felse has a large range of suspects, including some young men that he likes and respects. George's family feature prominently in the book and, after discovering Schauffler's body,
thirteen year-old son, Dominic Felse becomes far too deeply involved in the investigation than is good for his own safety or George's peace of mind.

The next novel featuring the Felse family is Death and the Joyful Woman, which was published ten years later in 1961, but is set only three years after Fallen Into the Pit. Dominic is sixteen and becomes enthralled by beautiful young heiress, Kitty Norris, who is a few years older than himself. When Kitty is accused of murder, Dominic finds himself in conflict with his father, now a Detective Sergeant, and puts his own life in danger in an attempt to prove that Kitty is innocent. Death and the Joyful Woman won the Edgar Award for best novel in 1963.

Dominic features in the next two Felse novels Flight of a Witch (1964) and A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs (1965) and takes the central role as investigator in The Piper on the Mountain (1966) when the stepfather of a fellow student, Theodosia (Tossa) Barber, dies under suspicious circumstances, and Dominic helps her to discover the truth. Black is the Colour of my True Love's Heart (1967) features both Dominic and George, as well as Tossa, who is now Dominic's girlfriend. After this George and Dominic's detection paths divide. In The Grass-Widow's Tale, Bunty Felse takes centre stage and she also features prominently in The House of Green Turf, when a singer colleague of Bunty's from before her marriage to George is in danger from an unknown and obsessed stalker. There are three more George Felse stories, The Knocker on Death's Door (1970); City of Gold and Shadows (1973) and Rainbow's End (1978.) He rises in rank and in the final book is promoted to be head of Midshire CID. Dominic has two books to himself: Mourning Raga (1969), in which he and Tossa travel to India to deliver a spoiled young heiress to her father; and Death to the Landlords (1972) in which Dominic has graduated from university and returns to India to work there for a year.

As well as the Felse mysteries, Peters wrote several stand-alone mysteries at this time, starting with Holiday With Violence (1952) and Most Loving Mere Folly (1953) (which were originally published under the name Edith Pargeter) through to Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers! (1976), a glorious comedy crime romp. She also wrote a large number of historical fiction and non-fiction books, including the Heaven Tree Trilogy and the Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet.

In 1977 Peters published A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first book about Brother Cadfael, the Welsh Benedictine monk, who, after a life of adventure as a soldier on the Crusades, joins the order in Shrewsbury and spends his later years cultivating his herb garden, ministering to the sick, helping those in trouble (especially the young and vulnerable) and investigating any murders that come his way. Set at the time of the Anarchy, a civil war, when King Stephen and the Empress Maud were tearing England apart in their determination to rule England, the

Cadfael chronicles are vigorous stories full of vibrant characters. Between 1977 and 1994, Peters wrote twenty Cadfael books and also a book of three short stories, in the first of which she described how Cadfael decided to become a monk (A Rare Benedictine, The Light on the Road to Woodstock. 1988)

Peters' work is rooted in her Shropshire upbringing. Her description of the village school she attended could fit seamlessly into the books featuring George and Dominic Felse that she wrote over twenty years later. 'The building was Victorian, with windows too high for pupils to be distracted by peering out. And a block of lavatories across the yard. It had no central heating, but it did have fireplaces, and in winter fine hot fires, but shielded by iron fireguards. Outside the actual schoolyard but part of the permitted playground was another spoil heap, known as the clay mound.'

Peters' writing style is rich and her descriptive passages beautifully drawn, whether it is of the strange, secretive, Shropshire villages, on the border of England and Wales; the mountains of Czechoslovakia; or the mystery of India at dusk. 'A completely changed light draped the hills, clear, yellowish, very still. The sky was washed nearly clean of cloud, and of a wonderfully pale, bright and remote blue.' (Death to the Landlords, 1972.)

Peters wrote about her mother that she was, 'artistic, musical, interested in everything. She played the violin and sang, only in a family context, but her musical repertoire ranged from folksong through music hall and Edwardian ballads, to grand opera.' Peters often uses the world of opera as a setting for her mysteries, as in: The Will and the Deed (1960); Funeral of Figaro (1962): The House of Green Turf (1969). She also uses a folk music weekend at a music college created to instruct the public as the centre for death in Black is the Colour of True Love's Heart (1967); and the battle for control of Mottisham's church organ is central to Rainbow's End (1978.) Traditional European music is at the heart of The Piper on the Mountain (1966); as is Indian music in Mourning Raga (1969.) It seems probable that Peters' mother would have thought her early passion had produced a fine result.

Peters is passionate about history and historical and archaeological finds often interwoven into the motives for violent acts. Archaeology is central to City of Gold and Shadows (1973), Death Mask (1959), The Knocker on Death's Door (1970), A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs (1965) and Rainbow's End (1978.)

In her contemporary mystery novels, Peters often has young people as her main protagonists. Four likeable young people are the central characters in her early adventure crime novel Holiday With Violence (1952). Dominic Felse and his friends are central to her books, and she writes of the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies with remarkable charm and accuracy for a woman born in 1913. She also writes of young people and their attitudes with greatunderstanding and warmth for a woman who never had children of her own. She had a lively sense of humour, which is particularly evident in her last stand-alone contemporary crime novel, Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers! (1976) where an inept villain is trying to find a victim and is complaining when his plot unravels. '”And then there was this kid, standing on the edge of the run-on, pointing his thumb down the motorway, solemn as an owl, with his suitcase in his other hand and his feet at ten to two, so clean and green I'd swear he'd never even hitched a lift before. In a grey suit and collar and tie, short back and sides, the lot!... He was a gift from Heaven! How was I to know he had a nose like Sexton Blake's bloodhound, and a squad of guardian angels tougher than a rugby scrum?”'

Throughout her work, Ellis Peters was fascinated by the masks that people wore and the way they deceive others and themselves. She saw herself as first and foremost a storyteller and stated that, 'in my view, no-one who can't make that statement can possibly be a novelist, the novel being by definition an extended narrative reflecting the human condition, with the accent on the word narrative.'

Fame came late in life, as did recognition of her academic and writing achievements, apart from the Edgar she received in 1962. Perhaps the greatest tribute is that a working class woman born before the First World War did achieved recognition and eminence towards the end of her life. In 1980 the Crime Writers' Association awarded her their Silver Dagger and in 1993 the Diamond Dagger. In 1989 the Ellis Peters Appreciation Society was founded in America and in 1990 she was invited to join the Welsh Academy. Soon afterwards she was awarded a Masters' degree by Birmingham University. In 1994 she was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for her contribution to Literature. She died in 1995, following a stroke. In 1999, the CWA established the Ellis Peters Historical Award for the best historical novel of the year. Shrewsbury still runs Cadfael events and in Shrewsbury Abbey there is a memorial stained glass window to St Benedict, part of which depicts an open book, quill pen and Brother Cadf

Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then, she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book This Game of Ghosts
click on the title. 

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