A Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters (Little, Brown, first published 1977)
Everyone wants to give the surprise, spot-on birthday gift. True, the wish list was a great invention, allowing us to give gifts that will be welcomed, even though we aren't close enough (physically or emotionally) to a person to know well what he wants or needs. But perhaps the best gift is one that comes unbidden and meets a need or desire we didn't even know we had.
Such was this book for me. Once having cleared up my initial confusion of reading the author as Ellis Potter, an entirely different sort of writer, I recognized Brother Cadfael as a PBS show, of which we may have seen an episode long ago. Apparently we were not impressed enough to continue the series.
Not so with the book! I was hooked immediately by this medieval murder mystery, combining as it does two of my favorite genres. And, much more than that: the characters, plot, and actions are all touched by that quality so rare in any tale and especially modern writings: grace. To quote the last sentence of the second book, One Corpse Too Many, without giving anything away: From the highest to the lowest extreme of a man's scope, wherever justice and retribution can reach him, so can grace.
I began this review after having read just two of the books in the series; at the time, my thoughts were almost entirely positive. Now I have devoured five books, and binge-reading tends to exaggerate the presence of small negatives. Hopefully all that has done is make me more realistic in my assessment. After all, I still adore the books of Miss Read, even though a recent re-reading of everything I have of hers—which is very nearly everything she wrote—similarly raised the profile of the books' faults.
The negatives (with some mitigation) of the Brother Cadfael series, based on the first five books:
- Too much romance. As a genre, Romance ranks only slightly better than Horror in my mind. To Peters' credit, the romance takes second place to the mystery, but it's still too prominent for my taste. In many ways the Cadfael books remind me of George MacDonald's novels. MacDonald is one of my favorite authors (as he was of C. S. Lewis), but many of his novels (as opposed to his fantasies and children's stories) have Romantic elements clearly designed to appeal to his 19th century audience. I bear with the Romance because of the serious philosophical content of which it is the vehicle. (MacDonald was a preacher, and it shows—but far from detracting, that is what makes his novels worth reading.) In Cadfael, I bear with the Romance because of the detective story content. The Romantic elements are also (at least so far), pure love stories—nothing embarrassing about them.
- The stories are somewhat predictable. That is, I find myself able to guess many of the plot twists and outcomes. But hey, it doesn't bother me to feel smart.
- More troublesome is the occasional feeling of anachronism, with both attitude and action sometimes owing more to modern sensibilities than to those of the 12th century. But it's reasonably subtle and does not get in the way of the story, at least not in my limited experience. In any case, I don't know enough history to be certain of calling it out. The author seems to take seriously the historical accuracy of the setting—the period of English history known as The Anarchy. Perhaps when you write in modern English—and what else could she do?—modern phrases and modern perspectives will creep in.
- Grace, as mentioned above. For the most part, it's not cheap grace, either. (“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession...Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
- The character of Brother Cadfael: come late to his life as a monk, carrying with him his experience as a soldier, a sailor, and a Crusader, he's a gentle, kindly man with a vast store of knowledge and a razor-sharp wit. He is wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.
- The respect shown for the Christian faith and the Church. Peters—and Cadfael—do not brook hypocrisy, arrogance, boorishness, and deep evil when they appear within the monastery, but there is goodness there, too, and also self-sacrifice, justice, mercy, patience, forebearance, duty, responsibility, and humanity.
- Happy endings. I love happy endings. Love triumphs, justice prevails, courage and hope live. The real world is quite full enough of darkness and sorrow. Happy endings, at least if done right, are not escapism nor foolish denial, but an expression of faith in the ultimate victory of justice and mercy. As C. S. Lewis said, "Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage."
- The mysteries. They're clever, and fun.
- The setting. The castles and monasteries, medieval towns, knights, monks, squires, damsels in distress—and not in distress. (One of the giveaways that Ellis Peters is a modern author is her use of strong, intelligent, and courageous female characters. That's okay with me.) Brother Cadfael's herb garden and medicinal concoctions. Evil that is portrayed as evil, but not luridly painted. Good that is good, and desirable. Indeed, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful shine here.
Incidentally, should any of my family decide to read these books, be aware that you are related to some of these historical figures. For example, the Empress Maud (aka Empress Matilda) who is contesting with King Stephen for the English throne, is my 25-great-grandmother, and Porter's 24th-great-grandmother. Genealogy makes history—and historical novels—personal, which adds to the pleasure of the experience. Brother Cadfael also serves to render more familiar those bizarre Welsh names that appear in our family tree, such as Efa ferch Madog and Hywel ap Meurig. And I have our new rector to thank that a character's pilgrimmage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham is meaningful to me, and not just another unfamiliar historical reference.
If the rest of the series lives up to the promise of the first five books, I should be set for a while with temptations away from my more serious readings. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the list.)
- A Morbid Taste for Bones (published in August 1977, set in 1137)
- One Corpse Too Many (July 1979, set in August 1138)
- Monk's Hood (August 1980, set in December 1138)
- Saint Peter's Fair (May 1981, set in July 1139)
- The Leper of Saint Giles (August 1981, set in October 1139)
- The Virgin in the Ice (April 1982, set in November 1139)
- The Sanctuary Sparrow (January 1983 set in the Spring of 1140)
- The Devil's Novice (August 1983, set in September 1140)
- Dead Man's Ransom (April 1984, set in February 1141)
- The Pilgrim of Hate (September 1984, set in May 1141)
- An Excellent Mystery (June 1985, set in August 1141)
- The Raven in the Foregate (February 1986, set in December 1141)
- The Rose Rent (October 1986, set in June 1142)
- The Hermit of Eyton Forest (June 1987, set in October 1142)
- The Confession of Brother Haluin (March 1988, set in December 1142)
- A Rare Benedictine: The Advent of Brother Cadfael (September 1988, set in 1120)
- The Heretic's Apprentice (February 1989, set in June 1143)
- The Potter's Field (September 1989, set in August 1143)
- The Summer of the Danes (April 1991, set in April 1144)
- The Holy Thief (August 1992, set in February 1145)
- Brother Cadfael's Penance (May 1994, set in November 1145)