The Brother Cadfael series is held to have begun the history mystery subgenre of crime fiction.

Brother Cadfael is a monk at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury and the title character in the series of novels by Ellis Peters. By virtue of the fact that unlike most monks he was a crusader and a ship’s captain for forty years before joining the monastery, and, additionally, became learned in herbalism in the East, he is de facto the most worldly among them and the most able to deal with various victims as they turn up. Or don’t.* Written in prose reminiscent of Tolkien, with Peters’ love of the glorious landscapes of Shropshire and Wales evident on every page, and abundant in human comedy, this series should be on every reader’s bucket list.

First among equals in plot and setting as well as first in series, A Morbid Taste for Bones will always be my favorite.

With typical Norman arrogance Cadfael’s prior, Prior Robert, decides to travel into Wales to appropriate the body of Saint Winifred. Shrewsbury has no saintly relics of its own and he hopes burying her body beneath their altar will attract miracles and pilgrims to their house. The Welsh aren’t thrilled. Cadfael, a native Welshman, is part of the grave-robbing party and by means I will not disclose here stage manages things so that justice is done, the bad guy is punished (kinda), and everyone either goes home or stays home rejoicing. I defy you not to laugh out loud at Cadfael’s resolution.

The series is set in England just after Henry I died in 1135 without heir, after which his daughter and his nephew spent twenty years fighting over the throne. Except for one early and horrific instance (One Corpse Too Many, another great plot with a swashbuckling resolution), Shrewsbury manages to stay on the periphery of the fighting, but murder is distinctly in fashion. However, upon a recent rereading of the series I did find that *An Excellent Mystery, where Cadfael conducts an entire murder investigation without, well, never mind–this novel touches my heart in a way I didn’t remember it doing when I read it twenty years ago. Well named indeed is Brother Fidelis.

There are some marvelous recurring characters, including Sister Magdalen of Godric’s Ford, Hugh Beringar the Sheriff of Shropshire and his wife Aline, Prince Owain of Gwynedd, King Stephen, and all of Cadfael’s series of helpers. Some characters are, like Cafael himself, fictional; others are all too real to history. I adore without exception the three titles that feature Olivier (see below), and, again, not spoiling, Kleenex close at hand is all I’m saying. Quoting Peters–

asking nothing, promising nothing, repenting nothing.

And so Cadfael shouldn’t be.

There are twenty books in the series, plus a collection of three novellas, A Rare Benedictine, for your reading pleasure. They’re all available in e, but I want to give a special shout out to the Mysterious Press editions with the cover art evoking the stained glass windows of medieval European cathedrals. I used those covers for this post because they made me think of worshippers and pilgrims looking up in wonder at those same windows in that same time.

The Brother Cadfael series is held to have begun the history mystery subgenre of crime fiction, and certainly Ellis Peters set the standard for the rest of us. Highly, highly recommended reads, all of them.

And for the true Cadfael nerd, some extended reading on all things Cadfael:

The Cadfael Companion
Cadfael Country
Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden

Why, yes, since you ask. I do have all three.

Book Review Monday Chatter

Dana View All →

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15 Comments Leave a comment

    • I didn’t much care for the series, either. Hugh in particular wasn’t well cast either time and he’s such an important figure in the series. Which I just reread and loved even more than I did the first time I read it.

  1. This was the very first entire mystery series I read. (Except the odd Agatha as a teen) if you like this you’d like Candace Robb.

    • Reading the Owen Archer series now. Have you read Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series? I recommend especially the first one, “Crocodile on a Sandbank,” and “The Last Camel Died at Noon.”

  2. Loved your post on the Brother Cadfael series. You have spurred me to re-read or even listen. I have all three of the books you mentioned too. As well as couple of Ellis Peters’ books on Shropshire thrown in for good measure. The book on the herbals is beautiful. The woodcuts in my edition of A Rare Benedictine are attractive but I shall look for theh editions you mentioned. My very old copies have the illuminated letters on the name. My mum didin’t read as she could not put a book down so preferred not to start 🙃. However, this was the one series she did read. Suggested to her by the local minister’s wife! Thanks again – I did particularly enjoy your piece.

  3. Oh and, Dana, there is also Robin Whiteman’s ‘Brother Cadfael’s Book of Days’. Did you ever subscribe to Sue Feder’s yahoo group or to her Historical Mystery Appreciation Society? And its magazine ‘Murder: Past Tense’?

  4. I loved this series! And I love Brother Cadfael. I found him totally accidently by first discovering a dvd at the library – The Virgin in the Ice. I was happy to find it was from a series of books and even happier when I was able to get the books through inter-library requests. Then I read them in order. I might just re-read them over the winter. And I absolutely must find the companion books!

  5. There is also a short story – The Duke of York (the King’s youngest son, age 4, ill and sickly and living with the household of the Lord Chancellor of Scotland.) While visiting there along with the Queen, Carey investigates possible causes for the child growing so poorly and being so fretful and ill. ( Have read this) And 2 other short stories – A Pest if a Boy and A Boy in Trouble – by PF Chisholm (!). These are stories of Carey as an 8 year old (not read yet).

  6. Oh lordy! My comment above totally left out that these books are side stories to a Patricia Finney series of Sir Robert Carey- a rapscallion courtier who takes up the post of Deputy Warden of the West March and is set in the contentious borderlands between England and Scotland in late 1500’s. His father is cousin to the Queen so he has connection to royalty but often brings trouble upon himself by his actions. Quite funny.

    • [grin] I knew who you meant. Read the series, loved them all except for the one about Shakespeare. Sir Robert is a most loveable character and Lady Elizabeth is so worthy of him. His parents are great, too.

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