Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Morbid Taste For Bones - Ellis Peters

    1977; 256 pages.  New Author? : No.  Genre : Murder-Mystery (Cozy).  Book #1 of the Brother Cadfael series.  Overall Rating : 8½*/10.

    By means of a divine healing, God has shown that Saint Winifred’s bones should be moved from their present grave in Wales to the nearby English abbey in Shrewsberry.  At least the brothers in the abbey are convinced of that.

    The Welsh are less convinced.  But when one of their own who opposes the move is struck down, is that not God’s judgment?  Perhaps.  But the arrow embedded in his chest belongs to his daughter’s beloved, to whom the father has refused to give her hand.  Hmm.

What’s To Like...
    This is the book that started it all.  Over the next 17 years or so, Ms. Peters (actually, Edith Pargeter) would pen 20 more in the series.  As her debut effort, A Morbid Taste For Bones is different in some respects; typical in others.  It’s a “cozy” murder-mystery, with a pair of “love-overcomes-all” sub-stories.  The murder doesn’t take place until 1/3 of the way through the book.  This is all vintage Peters.

    OTOH, Brother Cadfael is somewhat more cynical and devious than I remember him (this is my 6th Brother Cadfael book, but it's been a while since I last read one).  And his abbey colleagues seem to be a lot more worldly-grounded than in the later stories.  Ellis Peters seems to use a bit less “old English” here, which makes it an easier read.  Or maybe I’m finally learning her medieval terms.

    The mystery itself is well-done, as the suspicion jumps from one person to another.  There’s probably a half-dozen prime suspects, which seems just the right amount.  The ending is satisfying, and includes a neat little twist that places Brother Cadfael’s carefully-laid plans in jeopardy.  There are a number of purported “miracles”.  Some are obviously terrestrial in nature, but Peters leaves you wondering if others aren’t heaven-sent.  I like that.

Kewlest New Word...
    Cantrip (noun)  : A trick; a mischievous or playful act.

    The parents were ordinary enough, comfortable people grown plump from placid living, and expecting things to go smoothly still as they always had.  Cadwallon had a round, fleshy, smiling face, and his wife was fat, fair and querulous.  The boy cast back to some more perilous ancestor.  (pg. 63 )

    For would it be a miracle, if there was any reason for it?  Miracles have nothing to do with reason.  Miracles contradict reason, overturn reason, make game of reason, they strike clean across mere human deserts, and deliver and save where they will.  If they made sense, they would not be miracles.  (pg. 248)

“It’s a kind of arrogance to be so certain you’re past redemption.”  (pg. 198)
    Who knows why Ms. Peters “toned things down” as the series progressed.  Perhaps she feared losing church-going fans if the clerics kept on acting like lay persons.  Perhaps she simply felt the stories read better when the suspects were all new characters, instead of abbey residents.

    Personally, I liked the more-earthly tone of AMTFB.  Then again, I also like her later style.  8½ Stars.  Highly recommended.  Nearly 20 years after her passing, Ellis Peters still sets the standard for Medieval Cozies.  With good reason.

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