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:
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.