They say an ambitious man can make a grand career in the cloister

A Morbid Taste for Bones, by Ellis Peters

Sometimes I put books aside, for emergencies. For when I’m tired, or jaded, or just plain not up to much. It doesn’t mean they’re bad books. Far from it. It does mean though that I expect them to be books that will do most of the work for me. Books that will carry me to their destination.

I first came across Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels in their TV adaptation. It stars Derek Jacobi and if you have the slightest taste for TV detectives it’s well worth checking out. Jacobi is a marvellous actor, and having now read one of the books I can confirm too that he’s a marvellous Cadfael.

Isn’t that just a great cover? So evocative. It even features a scene from the book, and as any regular reader knows it’s not always certain that the cover and the text will have much relation to each other. The paper is also well chosen and generally I’d say for a mass market paperback it’s actually a very attractive physical package.

Anyway, for those unfamiliar with them the Cadfael novels are set in England during the 12th Century. It is a time now known as “the Anarchy” due to a succession crisis between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda. The Norman conquest is less than a century past and the nobility are literally a different breed to the common folk. England is a troubled place.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first of the Cadfael series, and so carries the weight of what is to come. Peters has to establish her characters, make the reader care about them and introduce a world very different to that we inhabit today. In a deceptively simple novel Peters accomplishes all that and provides a clever and satisfying plot rooted in the customs and beliefs of Cadfael’s time.

Brother Cadfael is a herbalist in a Benedictine monastery. Before he was a monk he was a sailor and a soldier in the crusades. Now “like a battered ship settling at last for a quiet harbour” he spends his days concerned with smaller matters such as cabbage seedlings and the care of the two novices who assist him.

Five minutes more and he must go and wash his hands and repair to the church for Mass. He used the respite to walk the length of his pale-flowered, fragrant, inner kingdom, where Brother John and Brother Columbanus, two youngsters barely a year tonsured, were busy weeding and edge-trimming. Glossy and dim, oiled and furry, the leaves tendered every possible variation on green. The flowers were mostly shy, small, almost furtive, in soft, sidelong colours, lilacs and shadowy blues and diminutive yellows, for they were the unimportant and unwanted part, but for ensuring seed to follow.

No metaphor for monastic life there I’m sure.

One of those novices, Brother Columbanus, is from a fine Norman family and is prone to ecstatic visions. Until recently that has been a source of some exasperation for the abbey, but ambitious Prior Robert Pennant has dreams of acquiring a relic to bring glory and pilgrims to the greater credit of both the abbey and himself. After Brother Columbanus has another of his fits he falls into a stupor and a brother caring for him has a (rather convenient) vision of a saint’s bones going untended in Wales. If Columbanus is brought to the site of her martyrdom he will be healed.

So it is said and so it comes to pass. With further visions coming as if bidden the Prior argues that the saint is calling for rescue just as she herself rescued Brother Columbanus. Her mortal remains are neglected by her own people. What could be more right than that her bones be brought back to England to rest and be venerated in the abbey?

The monks mount an expedition to Wales. They carry with them blessings from powers both temporal and clerical (and, they believe, spiritual). The Welsh villagers however prove reluctant to release the bones of their local saint.

The Prior had never looked holier or more surely headed for sainthood himself. He had always a sense of occasion, and beyond a doubt it had been his idea to hold the meeting here in the open, where the sun could gild and illuminate his otherworldly beauty. It was Cadfael’s detached opinion that he did himself more than justice, by being less overbearing than might have been expected. Usually he overdid things, this time he got it right, or as right as something only equivocally right in itself can be got.

‘They’re not happy!’ whispered Brother John in Cadfael’s ear, himself sounding far from sad about it. There were times when even Brother John could be humanly smug. And, indeed, those Welsh faces ranged round them were singularly lacking in enthusiasm for all these English miracles performed by a Welsh saint. Robert at his best was not exactly carrying his audience.

Matters worsen when a powerful local landowner decides to oppose the entire enterprise. The villagers hold him in high regard and look to him for guidance. His objection dooms the whole business. When he is found murdered a question arises – did the saint cause the man’s death that she might be transported to her new home, or was the murder borne of a more earthly motive?

I won’t say more. It’s a mystery novel and to reveal the plot would be a crime in itself. It is though a small delight. I make no claims here for great literature. This isn’t and it doesn’t aim to be. Rather this is a finely crafted classic whodunnit set in an interesting time and place and with a rich cast of characters.

Sometimes I find myself describing a book as being very readable. In a sense of course it’s a bit of a nonsense description. I love Pynchon and had no problems turning the next page of V. Is that very readable? Well, yes, but it’s not a term I’d find helpful to describe Pynchon’s style.

When I say a book is very readable what I mean is that it slips down easily. It doesn’t require work on my part. In wine terms it’s a gamay or merlot. It’s easy drinking.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is very readable. Within a handful of pages I was immersed in Cadfael’s world. It’s reading as escapism, but that’s as valid a goal for fiction as any other. What’s more, it’s good escapism.

Recently Tom of A Common Reader mentioned how the Cadfael novels brought him a sense of calm. I found that a very perceptive comment. Cadfael’s world is somehow immensely reassuring. Yes, there is murder, and there is vanity and ambition and many earthly failings that we will all recognise. For all that though there is an order. By the end of the novel we know that the wrongdoer will be punished. Justice will be done. That which seems inexplicable will be explained.

There’s an unreality to all that. In life things are rarely so tidy. It’s an unreality reflected in Cadfael himself who is perhaps a little too perfect – worldly in his past and practical while yet pious and compassionate in his present. If he has failings they weren’t apparent in this volume.

This isn’t a novel I would recommend to those who aren’t already crime fans. It’s firmly a genre work and while it moves the genre in some interesting directions (in terms of setting) it doesn’t push any boundaries or do anything radical. It’s no He Died With His Eyes Open. For those with a fondness for crime this is an excellent example of a well written cosy mystery. For those indifferent to the genre I’d probably recommend instead the highly accomplished TV adaptations.

For me this was the right book for the time when I read it. I’ll buy the next in the series, and put it aside for when next I need comfort rather than challenge.



Filed under Historical crime, Peters, Ellis

16 responses to “They say an ambitious man can make a grand career in the cloister

  1. You bring up a great point; there’s a huge swing in crime novels. The Raymonds vs the Miss Marples and every shade in-between. Nothing calming about Raymond.

    I find Trollope very reassuring.

  2. I’ve read a few of those and seen some of the TV adaptation (very good indeed). I agree with you, it’s a good read, an escapade.
    I don’t find this reassuring though. Patricia Wentworth is perfectly neat and reassuring. In Cadfael, OK, the bad will be punished. But to see evil in religious communities is unsettling and gives me a feeling of hopelessness. If even the monks aren’t better than us, then who is?

    Have you tried Tony Hillerman?

  3. Hey Emma: what about those tunnels between the monasteries and the convents then? Naughty stuff.

  4. Don’t tell me. I’ve watched this week the two first episodes of the series Borgia. It’s more testosterone-driven (power, sex, fights) than Christian.

  5. Why should monks be immune from ambition? Besides, in the medieval period many monks weren’t there through choice. They were there because they were third or fourth sons and it was traditional to send such into monastic or clerical life.

    One of the things the novel brings out is how unsuited some of the young novices are to the life. They’ve committed to it, but not always for the right reasons.

    Tony Hillerman, no, what’s he done?

  6. I know most of them didn’t have a choice, but still, they’re supposed to work on their passions.

    Tony Hillerman wrote crime fiction novels in the Navajo and Hopi reservations. His books are fascinating because they describe very well the traditions of these peoples. The recurring characters are Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn.

  7. That’s it. I have heard of Hillerman, but I have too many crime series on already to add another one in.

    On Guy’s note the diversity of crime is similar to the diversity of SF. There’s a tendency to assume it’s all country houses or all spaceships, but actually the spread of styles is so wide that it’s entirely possible to love one part of a genre but have other parts leave one entirely cold.

    For me these sorts of rather cosy mysteries are of limited interest. I enjoyed this and will likely read the next, but I don’t find anything like the intellectual stimulation I get from a good noir with its examination of societal issues. This is more comfort food. Noir should never be comfort food.

    And of course there’s a lot more in crime than just cosies, historicals and noir. That’s the funny thing with genre. If you’re not interested in SF then it makes sense to talk about SF. If you are though it ceases to be a useful term because it’s too broad.

  8. I don’t do well with historical crime (I have a problem with most historical fiction) but I liked your review. I just recently read a review in which a blogger I appreciate a lot wrote when times are rough she wishes to live an an Eva Ibbotson novel. Not crime but historical. Cosy crime can do that too.
    I also read that one of the conditions for the Booker was for the novel to be readable and that’s why there will be a new Booker next year.
    I wonder whether they mean the same type of readable. I would define it as “entertaining with a nice pace”.
    I like the Hillerman novels as well but i wouldn’t say they bring a sense of calm. This and the fact that Cadfael is a herbalist make me want to read one despite the fact that it’s historical.

  9. Can someone explain to the French woman I am what “readable” exactly means? The French translation “qui se laisse lire” is rather pejorative. Is it neutral in English?

  10. leroyhunter

    Emma, it depends. It’s like saying a wine is “drinkable” – it could mean pleasant, gentle flavours, not overpowering or it could mean bland, homogenised, no real distinction or memorable quality.

    To me “readable” means not particularly challenging in terms of content or form. The emphasis is more on the book being attractive or entertaining to a reader, rather then being thought-provoking or making you work as a reader.

    As with all generalisations this isn’t perfect…

  11. I don’t drink wine — yes, I’m French and I don’t like wine… — but I understand the metaphor better than the football ones. 🙂

    So it’s pejorative, from the highbrow side of literature, that is.

  12. Oops, my blogname had a typo. the link was from me. Emma and I were already busy discussing readable.

  13. Fascinating. I’m glad you enjoyed it – and “it slips down easily” seems a better description than “readable”. I visit the local Michelham Priory from time to time where they have a Physic Garden with all the herbs in section according to what they are supposed to treat (stomach, melancholy, liver etc), and the same calmness prevails among its paths as in the pages of an Ellis Peters’ novel. Despite the apparent “cosiness” of the settings, as you say, every type of crime goes on in her novels – and I think she’s actually a good writer in terms of her descriptions and characterisation. I must read them all again sometime.

  14. Readable is a tricky word. Slips down easily did feel closer to what I meant. She is a good writer, that sense of calm isn’t accidental and the descriptions and characterisations are neatly and economically done. I’m not at all surprised these became as popular as they did.

  15. For a photo of my collection see my latest post!
    I have eleven of the set of 20 – is it worth ebaying to get the rest I wonder?

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