A few months ago, I don’t remember exactly how or where (though I am pretty sure it was during the many discussions of the puppies and the Hugos), it was brought to my attention that the author of the Brother Cadfael novels was, in fact, a woman.
On impulse, the next time I happened to visit the one remaining used bookstore within fifty miles, I bought over half a dozen of the Cadfael Chronicles, thinking it was about time I read at least one of the books that helped popularize historical mysteries.
Unfortunately, by then I was suffering form the most horrific reading slump known to woman, and so the books have been languishing in the many peaks and ridges of ye olde TBR Cordillera.
On Saturday, I grabbed the first title and didn’t let go until I was done.
So here it is, my first TBR Challenge review of 2016.¹
A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters
I am not exactly sure how I had managed to keep myself innocent of all things Brother Cadfael. I mean, I knew that there was a television series, apparently very good, but that was pretty much it.
Now, I’m kicking myself over and over–what. an. idiot! I’ve been, not reading these novels!
Here’s the blurb, from my battered paper copy:
Soon after his arrival at the Benedictine monastery of Shrewsbury, Brother Cadfael finds himself on a mission to his Welsh homeland. Acting as translator, he must help his prior obtain the bones of Saint Winifred, which now rest in a small village grave.
The Welsh villagers are loath to part with the relics of a martyr said to have miraculous powers, but before an agreement can be reached, the one villagers most outspoken in his dissent is found murdered. His lovely daughter is determined to find his killer–and Cadfael is eager to help.
Carefully, kindly, and with cunning enough to please any mystery fan, the good monk sets out to solve his first case. In the process, his heart is touched by two pairs of star-crossed lovers, and he just may effect a miracle of his own.
The premise of the mystery deals with a historical fact–the removal of Saint Winifred’s bones from her original resting place in Gwytherin to the Shrewsbury Abbey.
The writing voice is simply brilliant. The humor is wry and sly and oh, so lovely!
Cadfael is so very human in his observations about his fellow Benedictine brothers and, indeed, everyone else around him, and so very compassionate in his understanding of human nature, that even his most cynical thoughts have a gentleness that sets them apart from most (certainly, he’s much more forgiving of human foibles that directly affect him in a negative way than I am).
The crime at hand is, natch, deceptively simple, and so is, in the end, the manner in which it is solved; what makes the read so satisfying is the wonderful cast of characters, seen though Brother Cadfael’s at once shrewd and empathetic eyes, and the rich sense of history within the story.
The pages are quite simply imbued with a sense of the period in which the story is set, without hitting the reader over the head with dry or unnecessary details, or sly winks as to how much research was done prior to writing the novel. An offhand comment by a secondary character, a single sentence in a descriptive paragraph, and we are brought to the twelfth century, with all its mysticism, common sense, ignorance, and politics.
And oh, the writing!
I was fully engaged within two paragraphs, and chuckling to myself by page ten.
Take this bit, from page 13 of my paperback edition:
An alien priory, only a few miles distant, with its own miracle-working saint, and the great Benedictine house of Shrewsbury as empty as a plundered almsbox! It was more than Prior Robert could stomach. He had been scouring the borderlands for a spare saint now for a year or more, looking hopefully towards Wales, where it was well known that holy men and women had been common as mushrooms in autumn in the past, and as little regarded.
Saints, as common as mushrooms in autumn. Snerk!
I am afraid to talk too much about the rest of the cast of characters, because I think I’m liable to spoil the story for the few out there who haven’t read this book. (I definitely lack the author’s subtlety!) I’ll just say that I was not positive of the identity of the culprit until the narrative revealed it unequivocally.
And there are two lovely, sweet romances too!
What more could I ask, really?
If you belong to that small number of readers who are new to this series, I enthusiastically encourage you to find a copy by whatever legal means you can, and read it. It’s wonderful! And, at just about 250 pages, it doesn’t require a terribly onerous investment of time and energy to find out whether you agree with me about the writing, the mystery, the character, or the setting.
I am so happy I have half a dozen more of these novels at hand!² (Of course, now I must find the rest of the 21 Brother Cadfael tomes published, and quite likely try other works by the author under her various male pseudonyms.)
A Morbid Taste for Bones gets a 9.00 out of 10
~ * ~
¹ Here’s hoping it’s not the one and only too.
² Since I have little to no self-control, I’m now on the fourth of the titles I do have.