Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Morbid Taste for Bones

Brother Cadfael, now the herbalist at the Benedictine monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury after wide travels as a younger man, is more interested in a chance to leave the abbey walls behind for a time and speak his native Welsh again than in his prior's mission to retrieve the relics of a little-regarded Welsh saint for the greater glory of their abbey. When the villagers where Saint Winifred is buried object strongly to the prospect of her bones being carried away into England, Cadfael's sympathies lie more with them than with Prior Robert or Brother Columbanus, a young monk whose fits were apparently cured by water from the saint's holy well and who now has an oddly proprietary interest in her remains.  The death of the main landholder in the area, found with an arrow through his chest, removes the main obstacle to Prior Robert's plans, a fact not lost on anyone present, and Cadfael must work to discover the murderer and devise a solution to the argument over the saint's bones.

One of the branches of the library system where I work has a monthly mystery reading and discussion group, and this month's book was A Morbid Taste for Bones, first of the excellent Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.  I brought my own copy, which I've owned since 1994.  I own the whole set, in fact, and now I'm probably going to go through and reread a bunch of them, if maybe not every one.

I didn't initially read them in order, but I like to reread them that way. This may actually be the series that convinced me that even the kind of series where each novel stands on its own is still best read in order; with this series, you can follow the progress of the Anarchy, the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud, in the background of the separate mysteries Cadfael has to deal with.

In the discussion this week, someone commented that this series seemed to be the one that launched the trend of historical mysteries, especially medieval mysteries, that is still going strong and shows no signs of falling off.  This one was originally published in 1977, but I remember the series taking off in the late 80s or early 90s, and the television adaptations with Derek Jacobi certainly didn't hurt.  I still compare all medieval mysteries to these; and most of them don't measure up, either in terms of plot or character, and especially not in terms of historical accuracy.  The benchmark of the genre, even today.

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