Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

Title: A Morbid Taste for Bones (Book One of the Brother Cadfael Mysteries)
Author: Ellis Peters
Year: 1977

Synopsis: "In the remote Welsh mountain village of Gwytherin lies the grave of Saint Winifred. Now, in 1137, the ambitious head of Shrewsbury Abbey had decided to acquire the sacred remains for his Benedictine order. Native Welshman Brother Cadfael is sent on the expedition to translate and finds the rustic villagers of Gwytherin passionately divided by the Benedictine's offer for the saint's relics. Canny, wise, and all too worldly, he isn't surprised when this taste for bones leads to bloody murder. The leading opponent to moving the grave has been shot dead with a mysterious arrow, and some say Winifred herself held the bow. Brother Cadfael knows a carnal hand did the killing. But he doesn't know that his plan to unearth a murderer may dig up a case of love and justice... where the wages of sin may be scandal or Cadfael's own ruin." (from the back cover)

I tend to read mysteries during the winter season. I'm not sure why that is exactly, but there is something about the early darkness and the cold that makes me want to curl up under my reading lamp with a cup of hot tea and become immersed in the puzzling, unknown, and strange. Perhaps it is the idea of something enigmatic, covert, or cryptic that seems to set so well with me when it is dark and cold. The season just seems to match the atmosphere.

With all that said, A Morbid Taste for Bones is pretty low key as far as mysteries go. There is no gore, nor is the tension terribly high, and what excitement there is comes mainly at the end. I was a bit surprised that the physical historical setting is not a great focus. Instead, Peters chooses to focus on the main character, Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine monk, and the politics and power plays of the Medieval church.

Peters wrote the Brother Cadfael series later in her life. Perhaps this gave her a greater ability to empathize with her older character, because she captured him well. Cadfael has joined the cloister as a "retirement job." He has already lived a very worldly life. This makes him a perceptive, patient, and watchful personality. He understands the ambitions and motivations of others, and this makes him good at solving crime.

Cadfael also has a wry sense of humor. In one scene, he is listening to a younger Brother rant about the ambitions of their Prior and his plans to dig up the bones of a saint and bring them back to the Abbey as relics. While we get the impression that Cadfael does indeed find this activity a bit repulsive, he can not be overtly subversive:

"I don't see why they should want to dig up the poor lady's dust. It seems like charnel-house business to me, not church business. And you think exactly the same," he said firmly, and stared out his elder, eye to eye.

"When I want to hear my echo," said Brother Cadfael, "I will speak first."

I like Brother Cadfael not only for his wry humor, but also for his quiet subversiveness. As I mentioned above, Cadfael is not young and inexperienced. He understands the need to work within a quite intermingled societal and religious structure, but he comprehends all too well the harm that comes from power plays by the ruling bodies, both "prince" and "bishop." His subversiveness flows from his compassion and sense of justice.

"It was a long time since he had exercised some of his more questionable skills, he was glad to be confirmed in believing that he had forgotten none of them, and that every one had a meritorious use in the end."

I am very excited to read more of the Brother Cadfael mysteries! If you are looking for a well paced novel with a very likable main character and a Medieval setting, then you might just like this series too.

Also reviewed by: things mean a lot

I read this for the Merely Mystery Reading Challenge hosted by Literary Feline.


  1. I loved Cadfael's subtle sense of humour too :) Also very much looking forward to the next book.

  2. Oh! This sounds like it is right up my alley.

    1. I do remember thinking that you would like it while I was reading it!

  3. I am thinking I will have to read this series one of these days. I have been meaning to, but it is long...

  4. I think all the suspense of mysteries warms you up and that's why you enjoy reading them this time of year. ;-)

    This does sound like a good one--I love the idea of the setting and time period. Great review, Terri!

  5. I really like the idea of the main character and so will have to check out this series. I can't believe I hadn't heard of it before.