Saturday, October 31, 2009

One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters

Happy Halloween everyone! I don't have a specific Halloween book (I am allergic to horror) but the next review in the queue is a mystery novel. With bodies! That is the closest we will get, I fear. But it was an excellent mystery, so without further ado...

Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries have now firmly taken a place on my pantheon of books I know I can turn to when I can't seem to read anything else. I knew I liked them when I read A Morbid Taste for Bones, but One Corpse Too Many has sealed it. These are not heavy books, in that the plot is fast-paced, there are occasionally suspensions of disbelief that must take place (nothing too irritating or obvious), and there is gentle humour and a smattering of romance. I also have confidence that Brother Cadfael will solve his chosen mystery by the end of the book. But they are not featherweight, either. There are moral ambiguities, murky motives, death and justice, and no characters that are either entirely good or entirely evil.

If we go down to the bare bones of the plot, here is what we come up with: the castle at Shrewsbury, sworn to the cause of the absent Empress Maud, is taken by the forces of King Stephen, her cousin and usurper of the throne of England. The captured forces are summarily put to death, and Brother Cadfael is put in charge of giving rites to and laying to rest the 94 unfortunates. However, he discovers a 95th amongst them, a young man who was clearly not among the castle's defenders, and yet has somehow been dumped unceremoniously in with them. He is given leave by King Stephen to discover who the man was, and who killed him and used the mass execution as a cover.

Do not let this plot summary fool you. I've given you a whopping three more sentences than the back of the book gave me, and I am nowhere near to covering the basics. Things are extremely convoluted, as they might be expected to be from the point of view of a man who will not take expected sides, except with the murdered boy, and who has a terrible habit of getting himself involved in everything. And the inventiveness of the plot just blows me away. I saw some things coming but I had the murderer wrong for the first 4/5 of the book (to be fair, Peters is a master of the red herring), and once I realized I was wrong, I was like, "well, then, who the heck?" Threads of plot and character are drawn together seemingly out of nowhere to make a complete and very satisfactory whole. Everything unfolds with perfect grace and timing. And suspense!

Once again, I am completely at home with Cadfael as our main character. I enjoy spending time with him, I find his sense of humour amusing, and I am quite confident that he will manage things in his own time and own way. He is damnably, but not impossibly, clever. That said, this book was even more suspenseful than the last, particularly as Cadfael occasionally does have the initiative stripped out from underneath him at a couple of key points. It makes the reader start to fear that maybe things have gotten out of hand this time. Brother Cadfael, no matter what the reader is doing or feeling (I ate three packages of Rockets candy without realizing it, eyes glued to the page, for example) never panics. So this becomes a very cozy read despite it's fast pace and excitement.

Finally, one last thing to comment on before I cut this review off: I think one of the things I like best about this series is the setting. The year is 1138, so long ago I can barely comprehend it, and yet I know that there were humans fighting wars and making love and art and farming and hunting and reading and writing and learning and praying. All of these things make sense to me logically, but it's a little mind-boggling to comprehend.

To be fair, I don't know how true-to-what-we-know-of-history Peters is. My grasp of medieval life in England is pretty shaky to say the least ("bring out your dead!") so I don't know how much fact is really in these books. But I don't care, because what I do know is that it feels real. She has enough detail to make it clear she's not talking about 20th century Shrewsbury, enough that I can vividly inhabit the setting, but not so much that I feel like she's tossing a textbook on medieval Benedictine life at me. The villagers and farmers are not constantly beaten down, frightened, or unduly ignorant, as I tend to think of peasants in medieval times; they just are. These are ordinary people, living everyday lives, thinking ordinary (or sometimes not so ordinary) things and doing everyday tasks. And I like that because it humanizes history for me. So if it's not exactly accurate, or even if it is, that's okay -- because it makes me think about humanity and continuity and culture in a way I've not been able to before.

And that's probably enough of that. I really enjoyed this book, I'm extremely glad I read it even though it wasn't technically next on the list (or even close to it) and I'm looking forward to reading Monk's-Hood when the time comes.


Book Bird Dog said...

Nice Halloween choice. Check out my Halloween list at Halloween Reads.

Unknown said...

Thanks Harvee! It's a pretty low-key murder mystery, but definitely the closest I'll get to spooky today.

Ana S. said...

"And I like that because it humanizes history for me. So if it's not exactly accurate, or even if it is, that's okay -- because it makes me think about humanity and continuity and culture in a way I've not been able to before."

Yes! That's what I always think too :)

Unknown said...

Nymeth - It makes me glad I'm not an historian sometimes, so that I don't even know about any liberties. It allows me to thoroughly enjoy myself in a way I can't when someone is writing about ... well, there's not a lot of this, but say, natural history in a fictional context.