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A Woman of Mystery : Fans Sleuth Out the English Creator of Tales of a Medieval Monk

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ellis Peters is an odd sort of hot property.

She is gracious and astute, but neither young nor glamorous--two of the usual prerequisites for success in Southern California. And yet Monday night Peters--or Edith Pargeter, as she was christened--had devoted Angeleno fans standing in line for more than an hour at Mysterious Bookshop in West Hollywood.

The faithful waited to have Peters, 79, sign their copies of her latest mystery novel, “The Holy Thief,” the 19th chronicle of an imaginary 12th-Century Benedictine monk named Brother Cadfael.

Peters and her clever monk--a former Crusader who committed a fair number of the sins of the flesh before he opted for the contemplative life in Peters’ native Shropshire, England--have so many admirers around the world that they have inspired a small growth industry.

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More than 6.5 million copies of the chronicles have been sold. The Ellis Peters Appreciation Society, based in Baltimore, publishes a quarterly newsletter. A big pink English rose has been named for the monastic sleuth. And those who make the pilgrimage to Shropshire, as hordes of admirers do each year, can take a Brother Cadfael bus tour, topped off by purchase of Brother Cadfael note paper or “The Cadfael Companion,” a guide to the characters and places, most of them historical, named in the chronicles.

Steve Brown, of Venice, stood in line twice so Peters could sign his complete set of British first editions of the Cadfael novels (the management of Mysterious Bookshop limited fans to two books only the first time through). Brown, 46, a writer/producer of such TV crime shows as “Cagney & Lacey” and the new “Columbo,” is typical of Peters fans in his articulate admiration for her unusually literate craft.

After all, Peters is the kind of author who assumes her readers will look up the word midden if they don’t know it means dung heap.

“I usually love hard-boiled mysteries, but I find myself absolutely charmed by these books,” Brown said. “As you read them, you become convinced that God is in His Heaven, and he and Brother Cadfael will make everything come out all right.”

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Cadfael’s creator couldn’t be more surprised at her recent ascension from modestly successful writer to international phenomenon. Peters, who published her first novel in 1936, considers herself fortunate to have been able to support herself by fiction since the end of World War II. So few others have, she pointed out.

“I wanted to be everything,” she recalled of her childhood (during an afternoon interview, over a glass of Jack Daniels, neat). “I wanted to write. I wanted to sing. I wanted to act. I wanted to dance. But writing was always first. I’ve been lucky. It’s always luck to be able to make a living doing what you love. Next to friends, I rate that the greatest blessing.”

In 1962 Peters won an Edgar--the mystery writers’ Oscar--for a contemporary novel called “Death and the Joyful Woman.” That book was turned into an eminently forgettable episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

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But her real renown came with the medieval mysteries, which began in 1977 with “A Morbid Taste for Bones.” She didn’t realize that that book would be the first of a series that her readers hope will go on forever, and so she did something she assiduously avoids. She twisted the facts of history, substituting a fictional version of what happened to the relics of St. Winifrid for the truth--the bones of the Welsh saint are interred in the real Abbey Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury.

Peters has had adventures. She joined the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRENS) during World War II and was decorated by King George VI for helping to keep Allied ships safe from German U-boats. But she has lived virtually all her life in sleepy Shropshire, and she never married.

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For the greater part of her years, she shared a home with her brother, Ellis, an engineer who is now deceased. Appalled by the fate of Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, she and Ellis learned Czech and made annual visits to Czechoslovakia for years (she is a respected translator of Czech literature). The nom de plume Ellis Peters marries her brother’s name with a version of Petra, the name of the daughter of Czech friends.

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The Cadfael books are suffused with medieval lore and customs, liturgical learning (she is Anglican) and a profound understanding of how that evil is very much a part of life. The books are also full of often poignant love stories.

“There was a boy,” Peters conceded. “We were very close.”

It was in Prague. He was 20. She was 34. There was a loving relationship “but without a tincture of sex.” He married someone else, wearing a tiepin she had asked him to wear on his wedding day. “Now I think I love his wife more than him,” she said.

Peters has survived several health crises, including a long-ago cancer and a recent broken back. She walks with the help of a cane (“that stick”). But she is obviously having a wonderful time. In the strangest of what screenwriters call arcs (Brother Cadfael called them tragedies or miracles), she is traveling rather grandly throughout the United States, thanks to a medieval monk who was born in her imagination. Admiring, intelligent letters from all over the world pour into Shropshire. She tries to answer them all.

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The Cadfael books are being turned into a series for British television. The starring role has yet to be cast. Peters said Ed Asner was interested in the part years ago. The former Lou Grant is the right body type, although his accent hardly suggests the border of Wales. What about Sean Connery? Oh, no, said Peters. “He’s too tall and too impressive. Cadfael is small and round and not so commanding.”

Peters is proud of the genre in which she works. The crime novel, at least the thoughtful one, is much closer to the great tradition of the novel than much so-called serious contemporary fiction, she said.

Among the remarkable things that Cadfael has wrought is that he has made his creator a rather wealthy woman. She hasn’t changed her life except to buy a larger house. But she doesn’t disdain the money.

“It’s lovely to have because it’s there. If you want to give someone something frightfully expensive, you can!”

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