Open up almost any of Ellis Peters' Cadfael mysteries, and chances are that you'll find a romance circling around the heart of it -- good ones, bad ones, and occasionally weird ones. "An Excellent Mystery: The Eleventh Chronicle of Brother Cadfael" is a solid example of the third kind, centering on a powerful love affair, and the only downside is the occasional stretch of believability.
After the abbey at Winchester is burned down, two new monks arrive at Shrewsbury -- Brother Humilis, a famous ex-crusader, and Brother Fidelis, a mute young boy who follows him and cares for him. It also turns out that Humilis received some truly horrible wounds during the Crusades that are slowly killing him, and have left him basically castrated. Because of his injury, he ended his engagement to a rich young girl named Lady Julian and became a monk.
However, an old friend of his arrives at the abbey and asks for his blessing in wooing Julian... only to find that while her brother says she became a nun, there is no trace of her becoming one. Cadfael is brought into the investigation, with only some pieces of jewelry as the clues to where she has gone -- but it soon becomes clear that one of the monks is more than he appears.
This book ends with a marriage prayer, and honestly that isn't surprising. "An Excellent Mystery" revolves around marriage, thwarted love and how true love can be divorced from sex -- on one hand you have the deep love between Fidelis and Humilis, and on the other you have a bisexual monk's obsessions and with Rhun and Fidelis (which are all about physical attraction and rage, with no actual love).
And it's some of Peters' cleverest plotting since EVER: she brings in all sorts of unexpected twists and clues that seem to point towards a straightforward murder mystery, only to double the story back at the climax. And she writes in a rich, antiquated style that seems to match the mellow medieval setting, as well as some depictions of what happened to some of the crusaders who were less fortunate than Cadfael.
The one downside: the story's biggest twist (and the backstory behind it) stretch credibility to the snapping point. Without revealing too much, it's hard to imagine how two different characters could develop such passionate, true feelings for other people they had barely met. It's just too much.
However, Peters' characterizations are excellent -- the warm, paternal Cadfael sits in the middle of all these events, and we get to see some of his old warrior blood stirring. The well-named Humilis and Fidelis are powerful depictions of a dying, ruined warrior who has made peace with his impending death, and a quiet boy with a secret. And Brother Urien is a complex character as well -- Peters makes you both despise and pity him.
"An Excellent Mystery" is indeed an excellent mystery -- sweet, confusing, and a little too romantic for its own good. Not the best-known of Peters' Cadfael mysteries, but certainly worth reading.