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The Apostate's Tale (A Dame Frevisse Mystery)
The Apostate's Tale (A Dame Frevisse Mystery)
Margaret Frazer
Berkley, 2009
320 pp., 7.99

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LaVonne Neff

The Shamus Was a Nun

Meet Dame Frevisse, a 15th-century sleuth.

Among my regrets over my wasted youth, one looms exceptionally large: I did not begin reading mysteries until I was nearly forty. Dorothy L. Sayers introduced me to the genre, her books being a natural segue for someone whose reading list was long on theology, short on novels. Once we made contact, I carried her paperbacks with me everywhere; I did not even want to go to the bathroom without them. It did not take long to finish the 13 Lord Peter (and Harriet Vane) stories, and soon I was tucking into Ngaio Marsh's 32 books featuring Roderick Alleyn (and Agatha Troy).

Friends caught on to my newfound passion—it was probably hard to miss, since it precluded conversation—and began leaving battered copies of their favorite mysteries on my desk. Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael, 20 titles)! Colin Dexter (Inspector Morse, 13)! Sue Grafton (Kinsey Millhone, 20 and counting)! It was heaven. And heavenly indeed was my discovery, in 2004, of Dame Frevisse, a quick-witted Benedictine nun of St. Frideswide's Priory in Oxfordshire. I immediately devoured ten books about her, combing the Internet to find the ones that had inexplicably gone out of print. Fortunately my conversion to mysteries coincided with my conversion to mass-market paperbacks. They are easy to sneak from one's desk to the office washroom. They do not weigh down carry-on baggage. They are cheap—which, when one becomes addicted to a lengthy series, becomes an important consideration. The Apostate's Tale, to be published in paperback in January, is number 17 in Margaret Frazer's medieval mystery series. Frevisse, born c. 1400, is the niece-by-marriage of Geoffrey Chaucer's son Thomas and thus cousin to Thomas' daughter Alice, Countess of Suffolk—actual historical characters, by the way. Her connections and native wit allow her to ride out of the nunnery surprisingly often, inadvertently getting mixed up in affairs of state, church politics, romance, and even smuggling. Some of the best tales, though, take place behind priory walls. Practicing hospitality as enjoined by the Benedictine rule, the nuns open their gates to all comers, providing them with food and a place to stay. In turn, the guests offer gifts, adventure, and sometimes mayhem.

In The Novice's Tale, the first book in the series, Frevisse is a no-nonsense, thirtyish, good-hearted woman who loves tradition and tends to get involved in other people's problems—a lot like another favorite heroine, Precious Ramotswe of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (10th book due in April). Both series stretch the definition of mystery: the crime rarely happens in the early chapters, and in some books nobody gets killed at all. Both are full of local color. And though both protagonists are intensely practical, both also ruminate a lot about moral and ethical issues. In The Apostate's Tale, Dame Frevisse butts heads with a shameless narcissist.

The story begins during Holy Week 1452. Cecely, a runaway nun, has returned to St. Frideswide's with her young bastard son in tow. At the same time, the ailing mother of one of the sisters arrives. In quick succession follow a businessman and two servants, several members of Cecely's late paramour's family, a mother and daughter who differ as to the value of the monastic life, and eventually the abbot and his retinue. With winter food stores running low and not many provisions available in the nearby village, the nine resident nuns wonder how they will manage to accommodate so many guests. And then a would-be murderer strikes—and strikes again. No wonder the prioress has a nervous breakdown.

The author, Margaret Frazer, actually started out as two women: mystery writer Mary Monica Pulver and amateur archaeologist/historian Gail Frazer, who met at the Society for Creative Anachronism, became friends, and wrote the first six Dame Frevisse novels together. When Pulver went on to other pursuits, Frazer continued the series on her own. With Frazer as sole author, the books have moved closer to the thin line separating period mysteries from historical fiction. Frazer loves research. One of her pet peeves, she said in an online interview, is writers who rely on clichés about life in the Middle Ages ("streets deep in filth," constant "lawless violence"), "who play fast and loose with facts to make their story-telling easier." Frazer takes pains to make the Priory of St. Frideswide historically and theologically accurate, and Frevisse's participation in the Benedictine life of prayer rings true.

More than any of the previous books in the series, Apostate reveals Dame Frevisse's inner life as she prays, sings the daily office, and goes about her work. The Squire's Tale, the tenth installment in the series, foreshadowed this book's spiritual sensitivity with a lovely paragraph about the liturgical hours:

Frevisse … sank into her own familiar place, made sure of her breviary and Psalter in front of her, then slid forward to kneel in prayer until everyone was in place and the Office began, continuing the unending weave of prayers and psalms begun years into centuries ago and never ceasing, prayed and sung by so many women and men in so many places, their lives given to the prayers and petitions and their lives lost to all memory but God's, that sometimes it seemed to Frevisse that here and now this hands-count of nuns no more made the prayers than someone made a river: they simply stepped into the endless flow, to be carried by it the way a river carried whatever came into its way.

In Apostate, Frevisse sees the prayer of the church as foundational: "Here was the reason for all else. All the duties and rules and limits of her life were for this—these times of prayer when she could reach beyond life's limits toward God and joy and the soul's freedom."

Despite her mysticism, Frevisse is realistic and unsentimental. She explains to another sister that she hasn't been given the gift of holiness, nor does she expect to achieve it in this life:

My hope isn't for holiness, only that I grow enough—can set my roots of faith and belief and love deep enough—that like a deep-rooted plant growing taller than a shallow-rooted one, I finally come as near to God in my mind and soul and heart as I can, no matter how much in the world my body has to be.

Not that she discounts the importance of her earthbound body. In typical medieval fashion, she values asceticism rather more than we do today, but she also accepts her body's needs. Up for prayer in the middle of a cold night, shivering as she walks to church, she thinks wryly of how strongly the body fights to prevail over the mind's soul-longing:

Whatever her mind's intent, her body did not want the cold church and more prayer; it wanted the warm kitchen and more sleep, wanted them very badly … . Only for a saint, she supposed, would the desire for God be so great they could not only forgo but even forget the body's desires. She also thought, equally wryly, that if that were the way of it, she was assuredly very far from sainthood.

Such practical realism is typical of most of the sisters at St. Frideswide's, with the exception of the maddeningly ethereal Dame Thomasine. Eventually even she admits to fatigue. "You haven't been kind to your body, you know," the ever-direct Dame Frevisse tells her,

and yet our bodies are God's gift to us. Shouldn't we treat them with at least a little pity, with a little kindness, in what little time they have to be alive? … Our flesh is the vessel that carries the fire of God's love. You have no right to break your body, either on purpose or through plain carelessness.

In the Dame Frevisse books, the word mystery carries double meaning—whatever puzzle she is trying to solve, and the divine life in whom she lives and moves and has her being. Still, these are not books of theology. They never preach. The characters are well developed, and the stories are entertaining even after a hard day's work.

At first I thought Dame Frevisse would be a pale imitation of Brother Cadfael, the popular 12th-century Benedictine monastic who similarly pursues murderers and hangs out with a herbalist. The more I read, however, the more I preferred the indomitable nun. Whereas in the Cadfael books historical events are sometimes confusing and only peripherally related to the story, in Dame Frevisse's adventures the historical context is rich, necessary, and easy to follow. And whereas previous events in Cadfael's life are revealed as his series progresses, Frevisse's character matures as she ages: the level-headed middle-aged nun of the 17th tale is no longer the impetuous young woman of the first. Simultaneously flawed and virtuous, Frevisse is believably wise and delightfully opinionated, and she, like Cadfael, deserves her own TV series. Thanks to Britain's ITV, Derek Jacobi is Brother Cadfael. To play Dame Frevisse, I nominate Emma Thompson.

LaVonne Neff has given up her storied career in religion publishing in order to eat dark chocolate bonbons and read novels.

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