Originally published in 1980
Brother Cadfael #3
Preceded by One Corpse Too Many
Followed by Saint Peter’s Fair
Gervase Bonel is a guest of Shrewsbury Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul when he suddenly takes ill. Luckily, the abbey boasts the services of the clever and kindly Brother Cadfael, a skilled herbalist. Cadfael hurries to the man’s bedside, only to be confronted with two surprises: In Master Bonel’s wife, the good monk recognizes Richildis, whom he loved before he took his vows—and Master Bonel has been fatally poisoned by monk’s-hood oil from Cadfael’s stores.
The sheriff is convinced that the murderer is Richildis’s son, Edwin, who hated his stepfather. But Cadfael, guided in part by his concern for a woman to whom he was once betrothed, is certain of her son’s innocence. Using his knowledge of both herbs and the human heart, Cadfael deciphers a deadly recipe for murder.
A simple but effective story. The mystery is not complex but it sits nicely alongside the exploration of Cadfael’s character.
One of the most exciting things to happen to me last week was the release of a boxed set of radio adaptations of Brother Cadfael stories. I have been waiting for this for years, ever since I first heard the previous CD release of Monk’s Hood under the Radio Crimes label and fell in love with Philip Madoc’s rich, booming interpretation of the part. Now this post is not a review of that excellent radio adaptation which incidentally is one of the three stories featured in that set, but I feel I ought to mention my history with that story as background to this review. While I read the book for the first time this week, I am very familiar with the story from its adaptations and so I came to this knowing the solution.
Master Bonel plans to enter into an agreement with the Shrewsbury Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in which he would gift his estates to the monastery in exchange for lifetime food, stabling and lodgings in one of the abbey’s buildings. The transaction should have been quickly wrapped up but Abbot Heribert’s authority has been suspended until he appears before a Legatine council in London to explain his decision to back the Empress Maud in the recent hostilities. While the paperwork awaits completion it is decided that Bonel and his family should be allowed to complete their move into their new home.
When the Abbey receives a gift of a partridge Prior Robert, who hopes to replace Heribert, decides to send a portion of the bird to Bonel to welcome him and in the hope of currying his good favor. Bonel falls ill shortly after eating it and Cadfael is summoned but he is unable to save him. He does however detect the distinctive odor of a liniment he prepared on both Bonel and the remnants of the stew and deduces it was used to poison him. Suspicion quickly falls on Bonel’s stepson who argued with him and would have been disinherited by the agreement with the Abbey but Cadfael believes in the young man’s innocence and searches for a different killer.
Like many of the Cadfael stories I think that the plot itself is relatively straightforward. We can trust that Edwin, that stepson, is not the murderer based on Cadfael’s generally sound judgment of people and because if the only suspect was the killer it really wouldn’t be much of a case. Once you look past Edwin I think it is relatively easy to spot the figure who seems most suspicious but the problem is understanding exactly why they commited the crime.
There are some clues but as with the other volumes I reviewed here, there are not many and the deductions made from them are usually quite simple. In several cases Cadfael acts based on his instincts rather than firm information meaning that some possible ideas are never really tested. This is understandable based on the character and the time he is living in but it means that the story won’t reward those who may approach this in search of a puzzle.
That is not to say however that there isn’t a clever idea at the heart of this story. I appreciate that this is a story in which the setting feels genuinely important to the story. Crucial information is given to the reader in advance of the solution, though its significance is not spelled out, and I enjoyed that this is another story that incorporates some elements of travel at one point.
For those who enjoy the exploration of the sleuth’s background, this story is a treat as it incorporates aspects of Cadfael’s past and uses them to inform the reader about his history and character. The device of bringing Cadfael face to face with a former lover unexpectedly is a clever one and Peters uses it well. Previous volumes had begun to explore this aspect of his character and certainly hinted at his understanding of romance but what we get here not only helps us understand much more of who he was prior to entering the Abbey, it also illustrates the ways he has changed since doing so (as well as some of the ways in which he hasn’t).
I think the other thing this book does in relation to Cadfael’s character is better define his values in contrast to the other members of his order. We had seen some of this in the first novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, when the monks were disagreeing about what to do about St. Winifred but that felt quite tightly focused on Cadfael’s Welsh background. This novel also has moments that explore his Welsh identity but it also discusses his values more broadly and how his views on what is godly or appropriate sometimes differ from those of his fellow monks. He is, we are reminded, someone who has lived in the real world and experienced things that the others have only thought about in a more hypothetical sense. These are not new ideas but I think they are refined and become more potent here.
I also enjoy the politicking we see take place within the order about the possibility of Abbot Heribert being replaced and the tensions that flare up between the brothers. Peters gives this a comical tone, showing both Prior Robert’s obsequious behavior when speaking with Abbot Heribert and his enormous ambition which becomes clear when he is left in charge. Rest assured that subplot has a nice resolution at the end that left me quite satisfied.
While I enjoy the mystery and the solution, I think enjoyment of this and other books in the series depends to what extent you are interested in the historical elements or in exploring the lives of these characters. Those elements of setting and character are given as much prominence as the murder plotline meaning that some will find the pace slow or possibly resent that they come at the expense of the complexity of the case itself.
For me however this proved a pleasant blend and one I enjoyed rediscovering. Peters is comfort reading for me and so returning to this story felt particularly pleasing to me in these stressful times.
Do you have any mystery series you love to return to?
This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Murderous Methods category as a Silver Age read.