“Aim at making everybody happy”: Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones

Cadfael

“Aim, he thought, at making everybody happy, and if that’s within reach, why stir up any kind of unpleasantness?”

Thanks to the generosity of a retired colleague who is pruning her book collection, I recently came into possession of not one, not two, but all twenty-one of Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mysteries. This series has long been on my radar, as it is beloved of many of my reading buddies including Colleen (formerly of Bookphilia, now of Jam and Idleness) and Steve (of Stevereads, of course!). I have made a couple of gestures towards it in the past, getting one or two from the library, but never actually read any. Who knows why: the timing just wasn’t right. But if this gift wasn’t a sign, I’m not a mediæval Welshman.

OK, so I’m not, but Cadfael is, and now that we’ve met at last I recognize his charm, and the charm, too, of the world and the style Peters creates for her readers. The cover describes A Morbid Taste for Bones as “a mediæval whodunnit,” and it is a lot closer to the puzzle form than the denser, more character-driven mysteries I typically choose for my own leisure reading (I never read Agatha Christie except for teaching, and I eschew the endless pageant of her “cozy” successors). I also don’t tend to like historical mysteries, which (like a lot of historical fiction generally) often strikes me, fairly or not, as either facile or encumbered with its research. (I accept George Eliot’s judgment that good historical fiction requires “the rarest concurrence of acquirement with genius.”) Peters deftly triumphed over my prejudices, though: the abundant research obviously required to present Cadfael’s world in such detail — from herbal remedies to weaponry to burial rites —  is deployed very naturally into elegant descriptions of setting and character, with more complex social or cultural contexts explained through natural devices such as Cadfael’s need, as a Welshman, to interpret or observe differences in custom between his countrymen and his Saxon colleagues.

Peters’s style tends a bit to the florid here (at one point Cadfael rushes into a room like the bolt from a crossbow and out again like a thunderbolt): I wonder, and even hope a bit, that as the series progresses she calms down enough to trust to her action to provide excitement, without insisting so much on it as the narrator. But that same instinct for rhetorical flourishes leads her into some nicely poetic moments:

The wood ridge on either hand ran in oblique folds, richly green, hiding the scattered house-steads. The fields were already planted, and here and there orchards flowered. Below them, where the woods drew back to leave an amphitheatre of green, there was a small stone church, whitewashed and shimmering, and a little wooden house beside it.

 Can’t you just picture it?

It bodes well for the rest of the series that I particularly liked Cadfael himself, especially his desire to work out a solution that satisfies justice without undue vengefulness and that also does as much good to as many people as possible. His benevolence doesn’t feel saccharine, because of his pragmatism and the ruthless wiliness of his schemes to uncover the evildoers. He’s also wry and uncompromising in his judgments of his fellow man, and I expect his dislike of men who use religion to serve their personal ends will be an ongoing theme.

I was particularly interested to see how Peters would deal with religion. All things supernatural are verboten in the puzzle mystery proper, of course. In their own ways, though, all the characters in A Morbid Taste for Bones are believers, and some of what they believe is explicitly supernatural (for instance, that the murder victim will bleed afresh if touched by his murderer). I thought Peters did a nice job conveying the centrality of her characters’ beliefs to their lives and to the ways they interpret the things that happen to them, even as she and Cadfael approach the crime itself as one committed by human hands for human reasons, and solvable by human reason and ingenuity. Brother Cadfael himself is quite prepared to believe in miracles, but it’s his intervention, not God’s, that reveals whodunit. At the same time, there’s just a hint that he and his collaborators may have been helped, or served, by the Saint whose bones are at issue in the plot. We don’t have to believe that, but it makes sense that Cadfael would be willing to, and so in that way Peters gets to have her mystical cake and eat it too.

I’m not going to binge read the rest of the series, since I have a lot of other books I’m keen to get to, but having sampled it at last, I’m happy knowing the rest of them are there waiting for me. Fall term is coming, and with it a lot of busy, stressful days when a little time with Cadfael will feel like a perfect time out.