Ellis Peters, Historical Mysteries

A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters

morbidWhat causes a book or a character to become popular? In the case of the Cadfael books, perhaps a better question would be to ask what caused them to cease to be so.

I am a child of the nineties and for those who were interested in mystery fiction in that period, Brother Cadfael was one of the biggest names in the genre. While I didn’t watch the television series, Ellis Peters’ novels were a fixture in the mystery sections of any competent booksellers and I remember other historical mysteries being sold with recommendations from TV star Derek Jacobi emblazoned on their covers so clearly the character had a following.

In the decades that have followed the series seems to have suffered a decline. Some of that would be an inevitable result of the television series having long since ended but from I also feel there has been a rising critical sentiment expressed towards the books. Take for instance this review of the book I’m writing about today from Puzzle Doctor in which he expresses the view that this is something of a snoozefest as well as not being a very well plotted mystery or this more tepid one from Rhapsody in Books which likens it to drinking light beer.

I first read A Morbid Taste for Bones when I went off to university, pilfering a copy from my father’s bookshelf (long since returned, I should add). My memories of the novel were quite positive so I was curious to see whether, having since become much more widely read in the genre, I would think it held up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still felt it did though, reading it with some of those criticisms in mind I can certainly acknowledge that there are some very valid criticisms to be made. Before I do so however I should probably outline the book for those few readers who didn’t try it back in its heyday.

Brother Cadfael is a former crusader who, upon his return, has opted for a monastic life of tending to the gardens at the abbey of Shrewsbury. The book opens with one of his fellow monks claiming to have had a vision of an obscure Welsh saint. This prompts the abbot to a party to set out on a journey to Gwytherin to claim her remains as a relic for their order and while Cadfael is a skeptic of this mission, he arranges to come along to act as an interpreter for these English-speaking monks.

After easily winning the assent of both the local church and secular authorities, they assume that it will be an easy matter to convince the community to relinquish the body but they encounter some unexpected resistance from a village leader. When that man is found murdered, Cadfael finds he is suspicious of everybody except the man blamed for the crime and starts to investigate.

Well, I say investigate but beyond looking at the body, inferring some aspects of how the man died and presenting a strong reason why the accused was innocent, his investigation mostly consists of setting traps that don’t work. In this respect I grant that Puzzle Doctor has a valid point – the mystery elements are weak and the plotting is far simpler than fans of historical mysteries may be used to. I think however that to judge the book purely as a mystery sort of misses the point.

Ellis Peters did not invent the historical mystery but she is widely credited with their popularization. What I think makes her work important is that she is able to create and sustain a series detective in a pre-industrial setting, creating a background that provides him with the skills he will need to be a credible investigator and finding natural ways to bring him into each case.

We may take it for granted these days that crimes took place in every period of history and could be solved but I think readers accept this because of Peters’ efforts. Even if later authors refined the techniques and improved on her style or storytelling approach, telling more conventional mysteries, Peters demonstrated that a character could credibly prove that someone committed a crime by looking at evidence and making logical deductions. She proved that if you provide readers with characters they could connect to, that they would be able to appreciate a story set in a period or region they may not know very much about.

Let’s go back to the specific details of this book. Cadfael is able to deduce from the state of the victim’s clothes, the geography of the crime scene, the appearance of the arrow and his personal knowledge of the suspect that they would be extremely unlikely to have committed the murder in the way assumed. From that he is able to suppose that if the person the evidence suggests did not do it then the evidence has been made to suggest it for a reason. None of this involves forensics or psychological analysis and yet from these judgments a whole set of ideas arise that will inform the rest of the investigation.

The critics are right to charge that the mystery is simplistic but then we need to keep this book in the context of the era in which it was written. Peters had every reason to question whether audiences would accept that a figure from this period could possibly engage in anything approaching ratiocination and the fact that the mysteries and their solutions are more simplistic reflects an effort to ensure that audiences could accept that.

Similarly, the introduction of romantic subplots may come off as manipulative and repetitive but it is hardly without precedent in the mystery genre. How many times did Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, for instance, end a story with seemingly doomed lovers pledging themselves to each other? I don’t think the two romances in this novel are particularly interesting but I equally don’t find them objectionable – they just provide credible character motivations.

What I do find compelling are the politics of the ecclesiastical characters and the cynicism the author ascribes to some of their motives. Writing about religious characters can be inherently tricky, particularly when discussing some aspects of belief that some readers may find difficult to take seriously such as the background given to Saint Winifred, but Peters manages to avoid making blanket statements and instead focuses on the individual decision making of human characters. Other books, such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose may take these ideas further and do more interesting things with them but I think Peters deserves credit for integrating them into her own work.

The other most frequent complaint about the novel relates to its pacing which is certainly leisurely. The murder does take place until well into the novel, meaning that the first part of the book is largely about an argument. I believe that this not only reflects that the book is conceived of as a mixture of historical fiction and mystery fiction, discussing themes of sainthood and the development of religious tradition in addition to telling its mystery story rather than conceiving of the historical themes and the mystery itself as a single cohesive idea. Remove the murder from this book and I think the story still works as a historical and theological drama. Remover the debates and the mystery would still make sense. The problem for the reader is that if you’re not interested in one of those two elements then whole chunks of this novel are bound to be dry reading.

To take all of these points together, I think it is clear why this book and the series it spawned was groundbreaking at the time and why it found an audience. A consequence of its success has been that the second and third generations of historical mystery writers do not feel the need to simplify or to convince their readers that a medieval person really could solve these sorts of crimes and this, as a result, feels a little old fashioned and awkward.

Personally I still enjoy the book immensely, in large part because I do find the religious politics so interesting and also because I liked the characterization of several supporting characters. I do recognize though that such things have a fairly narrow appeal and I would certainly not suggest that just because a book is historically significant means that it should be liked. Its popularity in the nineties was exaggerated and I think its ubiquity is at least partly responsible for the subsequent backlash against it.

Lastly, for those who haven’t tried it but are interested, I can recommend the excellent audio book reading by the marvellous Patrick Tull. This is one of those great cases of the right narrator being given a book that suits their style and I think he does a wonderful job with this material. The simple approach to plotting makes this easy to digest in audio format and I think his gravelly voice is absolutely perfect for Cadfael.



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