The first Chronicle of a truly rare Benedictine’s adventures.
In a number of visions, a young monk of the Benedictine abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Shrewsbury believes he has encounters with St. Winifred, in her earthly life a girl from a remote Welsh village decapitated by an evil-spirited nobleman. The saint, Brother Columbanus claims, tells him she is unhappy with the lack of care and dedication her grave receives from the local village folk, and wishes to be relocated nowhere else but to Saint Peter and Saint Paul. After a heated discussion over the appropriateness and dangers of such an excursion, the monks decide to mount an expedition to Wales to save the maiden saint’s bones.
Thus begins the first of what would ultimately come to be twenty Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, former crusader turned herbalist monk living in the 12th century world of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England. Predictably, the monks are anything but welcome in Wales – not only are they emissaries from an English abbey, which in itself would be bad enough already; they also seek to take what village folk consider their greatest treasure and, more importantly, the village’s holy protectress. When wealthy squire Lord Rhysart, who has led the village in opposing the monks’ mission, is found murdered, the monks quickly find themselves implicated. Cadfael, of Welsh descendance himself but now part of a mission from an English abbey, finds himself between all lines of allegiance in trying to find Rhysart’s murderer; but find the murderer he must, to ensure the success of his brothers’ mission and their safe return home. And it will take all his world-wisdom and all his understanding of the divine to unravel the mystery.
Like the nineteen Chronicles that would follow it, “A Morbid Taste for Bones” is rich in plot lines and subplots and demands the full attention of any reader intent on solving the mystery together with Brother Cadfael. Set in the time of the civil war between Empress Maud and King Stephen for the throne of England, Ellis Peters’s acclaimed series vividly and with great care for detail portrays medieval monastery life, as well as a society caught in the middle of a civil war, with shifting allegiances, intrigue, favoritism and again and again, the innocent victims caught between the front lines. More than once, the story lines also return to the animosities between Welsh and English that are at the center of this first Chronicle. In Brother Cadfael, Ms. Peters (a/k/a Edith Pargeter) created one of the most engaging detectives in literary history. His experiences as a crusader have left him with a keen sense of reality, a certain element of world-weariness and a deep sense of morality, not only understanding the letter of the law (both divine and worldly) but more importantly, the deeper implications of the same, thus enabling Cadfael to apply the church’s teachings in a truly Solomonic manner, always coming to solutions which are as just as they are compassionate and pragmatic.
To the novice who has just recently discovered the series, it probably makes sense to read the Chronicles in order, because they contain a number of cross-references and the cast of recurring characters is successively enlarged – Under-Sheriff Hugh Beringar for example, Cadfael’s trusted worldly sidekick, is not introduced until the second Chronicle, “One Corpse Too Many.” But even for those who are coming to “A Morbid Taste for Bones” only after already having read one or more of the other Chronicles there is plenty to enjoy, and it is sure to be fun to discover how it all began.
“Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit, robe or rags. Some better made than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern, all.”
“It’s a kind of arrogance to be so certain you’re past redemption.”
“God, nevertheless, required a little help from men, and what he mostly got was hindrance.”