Sunday, November 1, 2015

One Corpse Too Many - Ellis Peters

   1979; 188 pages.  New Author? : No.  Book 2 (out of 20) in the “Brother Cadfael” series.  Genre : Murder-Mystery[ Cozy.  Overall Rating : 7½*/10.

    For the besieged defenders of Shrewsbury Castle, there is no hope.  King Stephen has decreed that no mercy shall be given to them.  And so, after the final assault by Stephen’s forces, the 94 surviving defenders are hanged from the castle walls, then cut down and their bodies unceremoniously dumped into a common ditch

    But enemies or not, they deserve a proper Christian burial, and it falls upon Brother Cadfael from the nearby abbey to oversee that duty.  And it is quite a shock when he discovers that, whereas 94 bodies went into that ditch, 95 were taken out.

    Who is the extra corpse?  Why was he murdered?  And perhaps most importantly. who killed him and then why did he feel the need to cover it up?

What’s To Like...
    The Brother Cadfael series takes place in 12th-century England, in the westernmost area close to the border with Wales.  One Corpse Too Many is set in a particularly violent time – when civil war rages across England as King Stephen and the Empress Maud vie for power.

    As is usual for this series, the storyline is part Romance (two of them, in fact), part Murder-Mystery (of the ‘cozy’ variety), and part Historical Fiction, of which Ellis Peters (the pen name for Edith Pargeter) is an absolute master.  One of the recurring characters in the series, Hugh Beringar, is introduced here, and plays a lead role in the plotline.  This is my eighth Brother Cadfael book, although I’m not reading them in order, and it was neat to see from where and how Hugh makes his way into the greater plotline.

    The book is unusual in a couple ways.  First of all, at 188 pages, it is the shortest Brother Cadfael book I’ve read so far.  The previous ones have ranged from 198 to 275 pages.  Also, while this can still be called a “cozy” murder-mystery, the parts dealing with the 94 victims are somewhat gruesome.  Finally, both Romances are rather straightforward and uncomplicated.  Generally, the Romances in this series have “issues” – one of the lovebirds is a suspect, the duo come from different social classes or opposite sides of a conflict, etc. That isn’t so here.

    There’s more  action than usual, mostly because of the bitter war going on.  And if you like your protagonist subjected to situational ethics, you’ll quite enjoy the decisions Brother Cadfael has to make with regards to God, the warring parties, and the lovers themselves.

Kewlest New Word ...
Unchancy (adj.) : unlucky, inauspicious, dangerous.
Others : Distrained (v.); Sedulous (adj.); Caltrop (n.).

    Nicholas Faintree was laid, with due honours, under a stone in the transept of the abbey church, an exceptional privilege. … Abbot Heribert was increasingly disillusioned and depressed with all the affairs of this world, and welcomed a solitary guest who was not a symbol of civil war, but the victim of personal malice and ferocity.  Against all the probabilities, in due course Nicholas might find himself a saint.  He was mysterious, feloniously slain, young, to all appearances clean of heart and life, innocent of evil, the stuff of which martyrs are made.  (pg. 65)

    When the dishes were cleared away, musicians playing, and only the wine on the tables, the servitors in their turn might take their pick of what was left in the kitchens, and the cooks and scullions were already helping themselves and finding quiet corners to sit and eat.  Cadfael collected a bread trencher and loaded it with broken meats, and took it out through the great court to Lame Osbern at the gate.  There was a measure of wine to go with it.  Why should not the poor rejoice for once at the kings cost, even if that cost was handed on down the hierarchies until it fell at last upon the poor themselves?  Too often they paid, but never got their share of the rejoicing.  (pg. 167)

“Brother Cadfael at least can tell a hart from a hind.”  (pg. 88 )
     There’s only one weakness to One Corpse Too Many, but it’s a significant one  - The Murder-Mystery itself.  For the first ¾ of the story, Brother Cadfael is up to his ears in various plot and intrigues, so his sleuthing takes a back seat.

    When he does finally get time to investigate the murder, it’s essentially a string of fortuitous discoveries.  A fragment of an artifact is conveniently found, which makes it a simple task to determine who the perp is – just look for the rest of the artifact.  Our baddie realizes this as well, and has the foresight to dispose of the rest of incriminating artifact.  But there is a convenient witness to the act, and said witness then conveniently crosses Brother Cadfael’s path.

    All this is trite enough, but it gets exacerbated by a medieval “let God decide” method of determining guilt or innocence.  It reminded me of the Monty Python Holy Grail “how do you know she’s a witch?” scene, except here the tone is supposed to be serious.  All works out, of course.  But it would’ve been much more entertaining if God had somehow chosen wrongly.

    7½ Stars.  Add 1 Star if you read Brother Cadfael books for the Historical Fiction and couldn’t care less about whodunit.

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