Sunday, February 26, 2023

Cozy Sundays: Something Felse? A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs (1965), by Ellis Peters

I am going to get ambitious here and try to start some weekly blog series: 

Classic Fridays

Cozy Sundays 

Manic Mondays (noir and hard-boiled and thrillers)

We shall see how it goes!

I have been looking at modern cozies lately and the history of cozy mystery writing and will have more to say about them generally, but I thought I would inaugurate Cozy Sundays with a look at someone I think is, along with Patricia Wentworth, one of the Grandmothers of the cozy (or cosy as they spell it in England): Edith Pargeter or Ellis Peters (1913 to 1995).  

Edith Pargeter, aka Ellis Peters, later in life

Prolific British author Edith Pargeter wrote a variety of fiction and non-fiction but she is most associated today with the mysteries written mostly under her pen name Ellis Peters, particularly her 21 volume Cadfael Chronicle (20 novels and a single book of short fiction), about the adventures of a crime-solving herbalist monk in 12th-century England and Wales.  This series commenced in 1977 and ended in 1994, a year before the author's death at 82, and was a huge success with readers, developing a "cult-like following," as they say.

Myself, I must confess that I, like professional poo-slinger Julian Symons, have never actually finished a book in the series.  

Yet what I have read of and know about it strikes me as vintage "period cozy," as it were.  Certainly Julian Symons, an anti-cozy critic, pronounced Peters' Cadfael series as "humdrum" and "ploddingly dull."  (He didn't bother to look at her other books.)

Certainly I wouldn't go so far as Symons, but I just do not get into the medieval period generally.  I should probably try the Cadfael books again though.  The fact that Symons is so dismissive of them makes me want to do so!

However, back in the 1990s I completed some of the books in Peters' other cozy mystery series, the George and Dominic Felse series, which was then being reprinted piecemeal by Mysterious Press.  Unluckily there are 13 books in this series, which the author soon abandoned after starting the Brother Cadfael series.  I read three back in the 90s: Death and the Joyful Woman (1961), The Knocker on Death's Door (1970) and the punning Rainbow's End (`1978), which I enjoyed reasonably well (especially Knocker).  

With much boosting from Anthony Boucher, Woman actually beat out Ross Macdonald's brilliant The Zebra-Striped Hearse to win the 1963 Edgar for best mystery novel of 1962 (the year when it was published in the US).  However in my view this one is somewhat overrated, as well as something of a rewrite of the first Felse mystery from a  decade earlier, Fallen into the Pit.

the younger Pargeter/Peters
The bulk of the Felse series, 11 books, appeared between 1961 and 1973 and they constituted the author's major contribution to mystery until the Cadfael books came along. I suppose the coziness level of Peter's writing could be said to vary, as I didn't find Knocker that cozy.  Indeed, it reminded me more of a Ruth Rendell.  

On the other hand, I deemed the Felse mystery which I read recently, A Nice Derangment of Epitaphs, decidedly cozy.  Everything in it is just so fundamentally nice and no one could possibly really break their heart over the murder.

The series is, cozily, about the nice Felse family, this consisting of George Felse, a "Midshire" (i.e.,Shropshire) police inspector, his wife Bunty and their precocious son Dominic, who takes the lead role, I would say, in six of these books.  (Bunty gets one to herself too.)  

In Epitpahs, Dom shares the family lead with his Dad, the family being on vacation in Cornwall, but both are peripheral compared with another, local family.  The Felses, you see, get tangled up in the affairs of the Rossalls, Tim and Philippa, or "Phil," their young son Paddy and family friend "Uncle" Simon Towne, who is "just about the most celebrated freelance journalist and broadcaster in the world."  

There's also an awful old ogress named Aunt Rachel, who is Tim's aunt and the owner of the great country house Treverra Place (more on this awful bitch below), along with her charmingly forbearing career gal lady secretary, Tamsin Holt.  

A tomb in an old church, archaeology, a couple of poems and family history from several centuries ago concerning the vanished "poet-squire" Jan Traverra all play a role in the tale, but I felt a little bored and at times frustrated with the whole thing.  The mystery is competently done, but a it's comparatively minor thing, fobbed off for the most part on subsidiary, or even non-existing, characters.  What Peters is really interested in is the Rossall family melodrama, which to me is really rather small beer when all is said and done.

Years ago I read a non-series Peters mystery, Never Pick up Hitchhikers! (1976),  that Jacques Barzun selected, with uncharacteristic generosity, as one of his 100 classics of detective fiction.  I thought it wasn't bad, but what most struck me about it was how out of touch Peters' young protagonists were with their own generation and age.  They were so nice (that word yet again), more like Mormon missionaries really, and they seemed to hate everything modern, like rock music and discos, as I recall, and certainly just said no to drugs and whatnot. 

I thought this novel made Agatha Christie's Third Girl, from a decade earlier, look positively swinging by comparison.  No wonder Peters took refuge in the medieval age--albeit in a period beset by anarchy, just like the Sixties and Seventies.  I was honestly surprised to learn that Peters had been a lefist in her youth. Certainly by her sixties she seems to have changed.

Or earlier, judging by Epitaphs.  I felt so sorry for poor Paddy, a sweet kid who seemed absurdly overprotected by his mother for a fifteen year old.  (I think that was his age.)  The rest of his family, his "uncle" aside (who is deemed an irresponsible figure by the rest), treat him like some sort of juvenile delinquent, just a step away from looting and pillaging. It's like Peters was trying to take on the generation gap or something, but the conflict between the generations here is comically quaint, to say the least, in the age of Charles Manson and Patty Hearst.

The worst of the wretched lot is horrid, imperious Great Aunt Rachel, mistress of Treverra Place, who takes it on herself to tell the poor boy that he was adopted and is unappreciative of all his parents did for him.  I thought Rachel was a monstrous old woman, who would have been treated as such in a PD James or Ruth Rendell novel.  Peters, however, lets her off with that slight, indulgent rap on the knuckles that some adoring British mystery writers reserve for the gentry, confident as they seem to be that if you live off centuries-old inherited income and reside in a big old house in the country you can't really be bad at heart.  

Me, I was so irked by all this I was driven to make some marginal commentary in the book, a paperback.  Language warning!  It's a non-cozy arrangement of invective, you might say:

The elders in this novel are a bunch of asses.

Oh, screw you, you old bag!

What a bitch!

What a bitch.

Screw you, you horrid old bitch.


Maybe it's a testament to the author's ability that she got a rise out of me to this extent, but I would have enjoyed this book a lot more had Aunt Rachel been the murderee.  This is my least favorite Felse so far.  It's something Felse, all right, but not in a good way.


  1. Have you tried her early books as Jolyon Carr? They fit more in to the thriller category than golden age detection but if you can find one they are worth a read.

    1. I got the one title that was reissued about two decades ago but then sold it and never read it. I was more anti-thriller in those days! Those others were impossible to find.