Review: A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

Title: A Morbid Taste for Bones (the first Brother Cadfael mystery)

Author: Ellis Peters

Narrator: Stephen Thorne

Publisher: BBC [this edition 2005, originally 1977]

Length: 7hrs 38 minutes

Setting: 12th Century, England & Wales

Genre: Historical crime fiction

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My rating: 3.5/5

One-liner: A thoroughly immersive historical drama

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

In 12th Century England at the Benedictine Monestary of Saints Peter and Paul in Shrewsbury Prior Robert is on a mission to obtain some saintly relics for the Abbey. One of the monks at the Abbey, Brother Columbanus, has a vision that prompts Prior Robert to lead a delegation to Gwytherin in Wales where the bones of Saint Winifred lay, apparently uncared for by the locals. The delegation, including Brothers Columbanus, John and Cadfael (who being Welsh is acting as a translator), arrives in Gwytherin with the approval of the Bishop and the local Prince to remove the bones. However they meet resistance from Lord Rhysart, the town’s leader, but before a full debate can be held Rhysart is murdered and it’s up to Brother Cadfael to determine if the culprit was one of the suitors for his daughter’s affections or, as many of the villagers believe, Prior Robert or another member of the delegation.

Having only ever encountered Brother Cadfael via the wonderful TV series featuring Derek Jacobi in the title role I was wary of embarking on a book whose main characters I already had strong images of in my head. But although I couldn’t help but picture Jacobi throughout the book I don’t think it detracted from my reading in the end. As the first book in the series A Morbid Taste for Bones takes some time to establish the character of Cadfael, revealing some of his personal history before becoming a monk and allowing him to display a range of his talents (as herbalist, detective and matchmaker for starters). Accepting that Cadfael is an extraordinary (bordering on implausible?) person, being wise, well-rounded and pragmatically diplomatic, he and all the other male characters are quite believably depicted in their setting. I’m not quite so convinced by the main female characters, Rhysart’s daughters Sioned and Annest, who appear a little too confident and well-educated to be really believable for their time. I liked them but, like Cadfael himself, they’re a bit more mythological than others such as the ruthless Prior Robert.

It’s the setting of course that really shines here. The details of medieval life are well researched and well displayed. For example the language used is just different enough from today’s English to give a sense of the time difference without actually being contemporary (there would be few people alive who could actually understand 12th Century ‘English’). The themes of this book, religious fervor and familial duty, are entirely fitting for the period and both are treated sensitively and with a surprising amount of depth for what is, at least by today’s standards, a short book (around 200 pages in the print version).

For me the plot was quite predictable but there were enough threads and interesting historical details to keep me engaged and I will certainly seek out some of the books, especially those that weren’t used as the basis for episodes in the TV series (where I won’t be so tempted to make comparisons).

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

A Morbid Taste for Bones has been reviewed at Rhapsody in Books, Mysteries in Paradise and A Striped Armchair

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first of 20 books in the Cadfael series written by Ellis Peters (a pseudonym used by Edith Pargeter). Thirteen of the books were used as the basis for episodes of the TV Series.

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3 Responses to Review: A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

  1. Bernadette – I agree completely that the setting (in both time and place) is one of the finest aspects of the Cadfael series. One really gets a sense of the lifestyle of the times, and Peters evokes the religious fervor of the era quite well. I’m also glad you mentioned the language/dialogue. I’m a linguist, so I must say that got my attention right away. : )

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