Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Adventure classics -- A very unmonastic murder

A Morbid Taste for Bones

by Ellis Peters


“I am firmly resolved never to write an autobiography, and if possible to discourage anyone else from attempting a biography of me,” wrote Ellis Peters in Shropshire: A Memoir of the English Countryside, co-authored with Roy Morgan.

And in fact, who could write the biography of a pseudonymous character? “Ellis Peters” was only the last of the several pseudonyms of historian, translator, and fiction writer Edith Pargeter.

A few online sites fill in details of Pargeter’s early life -- failure to win a place at Oxford following her graduation from Coalbrookdale High School for Girls (she did well in the written English part of the exam, not so well in mathematics); work with a chemist (pharmacist to U.S. readers); and her first serious attempts at writing.

Strangely, most sites omit mention of early books written under pseudonyms -- Peter Benedict, Jolyon Carr, John Redfern -- works of the 1930’s and ’40’s that her first tries at mystery writing, decades before the Ellis Peters series. Was she, even in her twenties, trying to keep her murder stories separate from what she considered more serious historical fiction? Or did she fear the likes of Jolyon Carr’s 1938 Murder in the Dispensary might alarm customers of the chemist’s shop in Dawley High Street?

In today’s Adventure classic selection, A Morbid Taste for Bones, she introduces us to twelfth century Benedictine monk Brother Cadfael busy in his garden, surrounded by plants both useful and, sometimes, poisonous.

Did I say twelfth century? Peters didn’t -- and surely I can’t be the only person not to recall instantly the year the relics of St. Winifred were moved from Wales to the abbey of Saints Peter and Paul (1137 or 1138, take your pick).

Peters’ command of period and setting is so impressive we don’t notice it any more than we notice breathing. Instead, we notice tolerant, worldly wise Brother Cadfael. With a past as a soldier and seafarer with a wife in every port, he’s hardly the everyday medieval monk.

In a scenario reminiscent of modern televangelism, Cadfael’s abbey in Shropshire is looking for the one big thing to garner hordes of pilgrims and hefty financial donations -- the relics of a superstar saint. Two of the abbey’s brothers think they’ve found one in St. Winifred, buried a few miles over the border in Wales. Despite her many attributes -- beauty, virginity, a holy life and miraculous healing -- St. Winifred’s home town has left her bones to molder in a neglected churchyard. Surely, the monks think, she’d be happier at the abbey.

Cadfael isn’t so sure. The people of St. Winifred’s Welsh homeland aren’t taken with the idea, though, and find it even harder to believe when their gentle saint is accused of killing the person who opposes her removal to England.

Without benefit of modern forensics, Cadfael must untangle the facts to find an earthly murderer, as well as abet the happiness of two pairs of lovers. But does the task rest on his shoulders only, or does St. Winifred herself offer aid?

As he reflects afterward: “I do believe I begin to grasp the nature of miracles! . . . Miracles contradict reason, they strike clean across mere human deserts, and deliver and save where they will.”

Look on Amazon for Pargeter/Peters’ Brother Cadfael stories, which she wrote almost until her death in 1995. For a synopsis of her life and work, including pictures as a young woman, I liked Paul Wolfe’s article, “Biography of Edith Pargeter,” at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a May of historical fiction with Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago. A little out of the order published in the previews, but there’s a reason.)

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