Book Review: A Morbid Taste For Bones

A Morbid Taste For Bones, by Ellis Peters

As someone who is an occasional fan of reading detective novels [1], I was curious to see how I liked the Brother Cadfael series from Ellis Peters. I must say that I was very pleased with the novels on a variety of levels, as they not only provided an exciting read in terms of plot as well as a careful attention to social and political matters in the mid-12th century Roman Catholic Church as well as Wales (where most of the action of this novel takes place) and a deft touch at rendering characters, all of which is worthy of admiration and appreciation. The title refers to the morbid taste for bones that an ambitious Norman-English prior (Prior Robert) has for a saint to glorify the abbey he serves in Shrewsbury that leads him to an obscure area of Wales where a St. Winifred’s bones lie. The presence of the English monks leads to social conflict, a murder, and Brother Cadfael seeks to bring two couples together in inauspicious circumstances while also seeking the cause of justice for a murdered man. The results are satisfying and gripping, with a suitably gray ending and an intriguing afterword that provides a fitting close to the romantic and political tangles at the core of the novel.

Besides the medieval mystery plot, Peters greatly excels at characterization. Central to the story is Brother Cadfael, a Welsh-born monk who went to the Crusades as a young man and lived an eventful life involving a lot of relationships with women that never led to marriage, and joined a monastery as a middle-aged man to care for medicinal herbs (with knowledge learned in the Middle East) and solve the occasional murder mystery. Cadfael is a man of the cloth who is content to live as a monk and has no political ambitions, but is a shrewd judge of the character of others, a man of faith who is nonetheless cynical about human motivations, yet idealistic enough to risk his own safety for the cause of justice and of the gallantry to go to great lengths to defend the interests of vulnerable women and children. Clearly, Cadfael is a man it is easy to be sympathetic to, human and flawed but of high intellectual and moral sensitivity. Nor does Ellis make Cadfael unique in being well-drawn, as he writes in a wide variety of shades in his cast of characters, including impetuous and honest young men, a young monk ill-suited for the profession who joined it after being jilted by an unworthy young lady, lovers separated by parental disapproval, and people caught in the interplay of local and ecclesiastical politics, and many other divides. Although these struggles are set in a particular historical context, they are familiar problems even today for some poor souls.

Not only are these novels satisfying, but the large print version I read come out at around 300 pages, making them of reasonable length as well for reading in a single day (or less). Given the excellence of this book, it is very likely that the remainder of the series will eventually find its way to being put on hold at the library and also be read in good time. Not only is Cadfael a man who I see as not being terribly different than myself in his complex nature, but the political anarchy of his times is also a subject I wish to know more about, as the mid 1100’s is a time period I know little about, even if it is the source of some of the earliest myths of Robin Hood [2]. So, not only are twelve more mysteries in my reading future about this fascinating and enigmatic Welsh-English monk, but also I will be on the lookout for histories on Norman England, for if our own times are somewhat anarchic and the legitimacy of authority is threatened, one may gain useful insights for the present from a careful understanding of the past.

[1] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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