Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Edith Pargeter, who often wrote under the name Ellis Peters, remains one of the best-known authors of historical mysteries. Her influence was such that, from 1999 to 2012, the Crime Writers Association (CWA) award for best historical novel was named for her. This feature has gone for far too long without spotlighting one of her novels, so let’s rectify that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on A Morbid Taste For Bones, the first of her Brother Cadfael novels.
Brother Cadfael is a 12th-Century Benedictine monk who lives in the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. The abbey doesn’t have the relic of any saint, and Prior Robert is determined to have one. Then, one of the monks, Brother Columbanus, seems to have a healing experience at Saint Winifred’s Well in North Wales. Afterwards, he says that Saint Winifred has told him in a dream that her grave at Gwytherin, in Wales, has been neglected, and she wants her remains to be moved to a place that’s more accessible to pilgrims. Since the abbey lacks any saint’s relic, and since there now seems to be divine guidance to go to Gwytherin and retrieve Saint Winifred’s remains, Abbot Heribert gives permission for a party of monks to travel to Gwytherin. The group is led by Prior Robert; Brother Cadfael goes along to serve as translator, since he is Welsh. With permission from The bishop of Bangor and Owain Gwynedd (prince of Gwynedd), the monks set out.
When the monks arrive at Gwytherin, they are at first welcomed. But when Prior Robert reveals their purpose, things, change. Many of the people of Gwytherin do not want their saint to leave them. Others bristle at Englishmen telling them what to do. And the local priest, Father Huw, is unwilling to release the remains unless the freemen of the parish agree. One of the strongest objectors, Rhisiart, also happens to be a wealthy landowner with a lot of influence, so the visitors know that if he changes his mind, they’ll likely get what they want.
He doesn’t, though. In fact, his objections become more strenuous. Then, Rhisiart is murdered by what looks like an arrow. And the arrow happens to belong to Engelard, a transplanted Englishman who wants to marry Rhisiart’s daughter, Sioned. Because Rhisiart wouldn’t allow the marriage, Engelard is a natural suspect. But several people don’t think he’s guilty, and they include Cadfael. In fact, Cadfael discovers evidence that Rhisiart was dead before the arrow entered him.
Now, Cadfael has to look for the real killer, and he doesn’t have much time before the monks are set to leave with Saint Winifred’s remains. There are several possibilities, too. One is, of course, that the killer really is Engelard. Another is Peredur, who also wants to marry Sioned, and who could have killed the victim to frame his rival. But Rhisiart had made other enemies. And Cadfael isn’t blind to the fact that one of the monks might have been responsible. With the help of Sioned, Cadfael slowly gets to the truth about the murder. And, in the end, he finds a way to catch the killer and resolve the conflict between the monks and the people of Gwytherin.
The story takes place during the 12th Century, so readers learn quite a bit about that time. There’s the social structure of the day, the culture, and the daily life. There’s also the relationship between Wales and England, as well as the use of language. A word is also in order here about Peters’ writing style. It reflects the times, but uses modern enough word choice and sentence structure that it’s not hard to follow.
And, in keeping with the historical nature of the novel, the mystery is solved with the knowledge of the day. Brother Cadfael uses what he knows about illness, death, and so on to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And he has the knowledge for it. As fans know, he is the abbey’s herbalist and also takes care of the sick. So, he’s thoroughly familiar with the medicine of the times. Since the story is told mostly from Cadfael’s perspective (third person, past tense), we learn other things about him, too. Unlike several of his abbey brethren, Cadfael became a monk a bit later in life (in his forties). So, he’s had plenty of secular experiences, including travel, service in war, and several relationships with women. All of this gives Cadfael a pragmatic view of life and of resolutions to conflicts. He’s not a ‘letter of the law’ sort of monk, and that makes him quite accessible to laypeople. His practical approach plays an important role in the story, too.
Several of the characters in the novel are monks, so we also learn quite a lot about the monastic life of the times. There’s a hierarchy at the abbey, which is more or less closely observed. Each monk has tasks to perform, and there’s a rhythm to the abbey’s daily life, mostly based on religious observance.
It’s also worth noting that the Church has a lot of power and authority in these times. So, the local people listen to what their priests say, and respect religious leadership as they do secular leadership. That doesn’t mean everyone’s blindly obedient, and we see that, too. But Peters makes it clear that those in the religious life have a great deal of influence.
The story isn’t at all what you’d call a ‘cosy’ mystery. Still, there’s little in the way of violence, and much of that is ‘off stage.’ And readers who dislike profanity will be pleased to know that there isn’t any in this novel.
A Morbid Taste For Bones is a medieval mystery set mostly in a small Welsh village. It features a look into the religious life as well as into the lives of those who lived in the ‘real world’ of the 12th Century. And it introduces a sleuth who uses what he knows about people, herbs, illness and medicine to do his best to make things right. But what’s your view? Have you read A Morbid Taste For Bones? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 17 July/Tuesday, 18 July – Talking to the Dead – Harry Bingham
Monday, 24 July/Tuesday 25 July – Bloody Waters – Carolina Garcia-Aguilera
Monday, 31 July/Tuesday, 1 August – Trial of Passion – William Deverell