Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

My mother reads mysteries. She is my authority when it comes to a good mystery. So when I was wandering through the stacks at the local public library the other night, not quite ready to start in on the giant tome about Egyptian ruins that sits next on my pile, the name Ellis Peters caught my eye. I remembered the Brother Cadfael mysteries from my mother's reading pile at the bedside, and I figured it was time to try one for myself. A crime-solving medieval monk? I'm in!

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first of the Brother Cadfael series. We are introduced to the good brother in his monastery garden, in a somewhat clumsy but informative exposition scene in which we learn that Cadfael is a relatively recent convert to the abbey at Shrewsbury, having been a soldier during the crusades and the captain of a military ship, among other (perhaps less savoury?) exploits that are only vaguely hinted at here. He is a patient, kind, very shrewd older Welshman with a love of gardening and perhaps a little bit of a love for mischief.

The bones in question belong to one Saint Winifred, a minor Welsh saint, who is deemed the patron saint of the Shrewsbury Abbey by its zealous and ambitious Prior, Robert. Suspecting trouble, Cadfael gets himself included in the company sent to retrieve Winifred's remains, ostensibly as the only fluent Welsh speaker available. Needless to say, the retrieval of the relics does not go as smoothly as the prior might have hoped, murder is done, and Cadfael sets himself the task of making things right.

I am thoroughly enchanted by Brother Cadfael. He is a delightful character, well-drawn and pleasant to spend time with. He exhibits enough scepticism that I can relate (I wasn't expecting to relate to a Benedictine monk), is observant but not superhumanly so, enjoys his comforts and his garden, is sympathetic to those who deserve it, and tolerant of those who do not. In other words, he's a comfortable, comforting hero who makes the story worth reading. Furthermore, Peters does a great job with the secondary characters, giving them distinct personalities and motives, making us care about those she wants us to care about.

The mystery isn't one of those rush-to-the-end things, but it's interesting, and there are a number of twists and somewhat unexpected turns along the way. I was definitely surprised at the way things ended for the murderer, and at first was a little frustrated (I can't say more without spoilers) but I think it does work out. The resolution is clever and though the loose ends all get tied up, it's not in a completely unbelievable way.

I also really enjoy how Peters uses the credulity of some of her more devout characters to make what otherwise might seem crazy believable to us, the 20th (or, now, 21st) century reader; yet she also leaves a little bit of room for mystery that seems plausible to both Cadfael and the reader. There are no thunderbolts or deus ex machinas at work here -- there's just a hint of something that might be Mystery but also might be ordinary humans doing extraordinary things. She doesn't hit us over the head with it but it makes sense given the context -- the 12th century and a comfortably sceptical monk. I should mention, by the way, that Cadfael doesn't come across as a character written by a writer in the 1970s, which is a trap that historical authors sometimes slip into. Peters has given him the benefit of being well-traveled and well-aged to create a character that views things with the objectivity and bemusement of wisdom; he doesn't do anything outside of what we might expect.

One more thing to mention: I like Peters' sense of humour. It's very dry, and might almost be missed. She sets things up with long sentences, lots of description, and lulls the reader into complacency before delivering a short, sharp little barb. It's not slapstick, there are no setups and punchlines -- it's just always there, never quite absent but not garishly obvious.

The next in this 20-volume-long series is One Corpse Too Many, and I've got it on hold at the library now.


Nan said...

I've not read this series, but know that many, many people love it. You wrote an excellent review, Kiirstin. When you go back to that section of the library again, look a little to the left for Elizabeth Peters. She combines egyptology with absolutely wonderful characters in her Amelia Peabody mysteries. Here's a link if you'd like to know more:

It is fun to start right at the beginning, and go forward in sequence since events happen, the characters age and their life circumstances change. The series in order from newest to oldest here:

One of my favorite, favorite series ever.

Nan said...

You won A Blessing of Toads!! You may go to my profile page and email me with your mailing info and I'll send the book off to you.

Unknown said...

Nan, thank you!! I'm very excited. I *never* win things. I'm really looking forward to reading it!

Re: Elizabeth Peters... she's another one on my Mom's list, too! I'll definitely be checking her books out. Thanks for the links and the recommendation!

Nan said...

I think your mom and I would have fun discussing books!

Ana S. said...

This has been on my wishlist for a while. Thank you for reminding me of why I wanted to read it to begin with!

Unknown said...

You're always welcome! It's a very quick read, and pretty light -- a great vacation read, or between big heavy books! (Or pre-launching-into-a-giant-nonfic-about-Egypt ;) )