“A Morbid Taste for Bones,” Ellis Peters

Since reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I’ve been feeling a hankering for more quality medieval fiction. Unsurprisingly, I’m a sucker for all things Gothic and Romantic, and have no problem indulging in the pastoral fantasy of “simpler times” when people spent a great deal of time growing vegetables and copying books by hand and reading by candlelight. Throw in some philosophic musings about historic contemplative Christianity and some whodunit murders, and I’m a very happy camper.

I’ve heard about Ellis Peters’s Cadfael Chronicles for some time: friends at work have mentioned how much they’ve enjoyed the series, and streaming services have recommended the TV adaptation (starring Derek Jacobi, always a good sign) to me. There are twenty novels in the Cadfael series, but I figured I should start with book one, A Morbid Taste for Bones.

Brother Cadfael’s debut is a compact novel of 250 pages but still offers enough scene setting, characterization, clues, and red herrings to satisfy. It opens with the promise of a closed-monastery mystery but then quickly moves to the Welsh countryside, on a mission to dig up a saint’s holy bones, and indeed the social commentary on medieval English-Welsh relations is some of the most interesting historical detail in the novel. Brother Cadfael is himself Welsh and acts as interpreter for his English brothers, providing the protagonist (and thus the reader) a dual English-Welsh perspective on the characters and events.

A Morbid Taste for Bones released in 1977, and immediately striking to a contemporary reader is the pacing and point of view. There is no dead body until approximately page 90, well over a third of the way into the book—hopelessly too late, by today’s publishing standards, to “capture” the reader’s attention. The progressive plot revelations feel straightforward, too, in that the bad guys are identified early on, though the reader doesn’t know which one, exactly, is the murderer, or how the murder was committed, until the end. Peters serves up some curveballs to the reader, certainly, but the plot is well controlled and self-contained; unlike those mysteries where a freak motivation or circumstance is revealed at the very end that the reader could never anticipate, the conclusion feels elusive and yet forgone in a way that is actually quite satisfying.

As to point of view, the narrator dips freely into the heads of side characters and suspects alike—a practice I haven’t seen in most mysteries I’ve read. At first I was surprised, because Peters seems to give up some amount of suspense and information control by allowing readers these extra points of view. But what she loses in suspense, she gains in character development, allowing her to build a robust cast of side characters in a shorter page count. As a character-driven writer myself, I appreciated Peters’s tradeoff, although I do wonder if she would be able to do the same thing if she were publishing this book in 2020.

As for Brother Cadfael, he is an insightful, generous, unassuming hero to follow, and I can readily understand why readers come back again and again to Peters’s sleuth for his understated, nostalgic mysteries.

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