One Corpse Too Many (1979): Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book 2

In times like these, it’s comforting to read a book where the author is entirely in control: where everything gels beautifully, and you don’t have to do anything but be carried along on the story. Few books convey this ‘sinking into a warm bath’ feeling better than Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series. I read the first book some time ago now, and actually read this second instalment immediately afterwards, but didn’t write about it at the time. It’s been long enough that I’d completely forgotten what happened, and had the pleasure of reading it all over again: disguise, distrust, nefarious deeds and all! It’s 1138 in Shrewsbury and King Stephen and his army are camped outside the town walls, while the last of the Empress Maud’s loyalists wait defiantly within the castle. When the castle finally falls, as all know it must, the garrison are executed. The monks of Shrewsbury Abbey volunteer to undertake the pious work of burying the 94 dead men, but when Cadfael takes charge of the task, he makes a troubling discovery. There are not 94 corpses but 95, and the extra man has not been hanged along with the rest of the garrison, but garrotted. How has a murder victim come to be concealed among the bodies of these men, and who was he? Cadfael and his new assistant Godric resolve to find out.

And Godric? Well, that’s a whole other issue that Cadfael has to deal with. Indeed, as Shrewsbury falls into the vengeful hands of Stephen and his Flemish mercenaries, the Abbey becomes the refuge – or haunt – of those on both sides of the political spectrum. The young heiress Aline Siward lodges in one of the guest houses, shortly after pledging her allegiance to Stephen, her beauty attracting the attention of the king’s officer Adam de Courcelle. She has another suitor too: the dark, handsome, politically flexible Hugh Beringar – who happens to be already betrothed, to Godith Adeney, daughter of a powerful local lord and close ally of the sheriff William FitzAlan. But Fulke Adeney and FitzAlan were adherents of Empress Maud; their garrison is dead; their castle lost; and the two men themselves have vanished from right under Stephen’s angry nose. In such circumstances, who can blame Beringar for considering a more politically appropriate match? Besides, Godith Adeney has disappeared as well and, though she’s thought to still be within the walls, almost no one knows where she is. A few wise people keep their council: among them, Cadfael and young Godric, who find themselves drawn deep into the aftermath of Shrewsbury’s fall.

The wonderful thing about the Cadfael books is that they manage to be engaging murder mysteries, while, at the same time, being incredibly warm and comforting. Cadfael’s world is (with a few exceptions) one of generosity and honour, a world of keeping one’s word, acting with courage, and doing the right thing. Even though the country is in the process of being ravaged by civil war, people are governed by a code of conduct that largely holds true even in the midst of anarchy. There are few outright villains, and even they have some redeeming qualities, although you can rest assured that everything will be resolved neatly at the end. And Cadfael himself is the kind of warm, avuncular, caring fellow whom you’d always want on your side: wise enough not to have to ask awkward questions, and blessed with a richly adventurous backstory. I will grant you that some of the characters seem too perfect: the youngsters are invariably handsome or beautiful, light-hearted, honest, true young things who have a slightly implausible habit of ‘skipping’ rather than walking. One character has the kind of violet eyes that so rarely feature in real life, yet appear all the time in romance and historical novels. As a matter of fact, there were several times that Peters’s writing reminded me of Georgette Heyer – Godric felt very similar to the irrepressible Léon in These Old Shades, and not just for the obvious reason. There’s something about the way the character is described – an essence of mischievous dimpling coupled with innocent gravity – that echoed Heyer’s writing.

But that, for me, is no problem. I love Heyer, and I find that Cadfael’s world gives me the same sense of security and satisfaction as hers: a comfort blanket for the soul. Fortunately, I have much of the series already on my bookshelves (the results of happily ravaging second-hand bookshops), so I hope to continue very soon and see what mysteries or troubles lie in wait for our monastic hero.

For those who are eagerly awaiting my thoughts on Last Argument of Kings (Heloise, I’m looking at you), fear not! I’ve read it, enjoyed it, smiled at the ending, and will be writing more about that soon. In fact, reading Cadfael so soon after finishing the First Law series underlines the very different worldviews of the two authors. Peters writes of the world as it should be, where justice is served and integrity wins through, while Abercrombie, perhaps, writes of the world as it is, where we never quite gain the ending we desire.

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Previously in the series – A Morbid Taste for Bones

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