Fifty-seven year old Welshman Brother Cadfael is a “squat, barrel-chested, bandy-legged” Benedictine monk in the 12th Century at the Abbey of Shrewsbury. He came to the monastery late in life after an action-packed youth that included a stint in the Crusades. The Abbey is a sort of retirement for him, and he works in the herbarium. There he is assisted by “the youngsters” Brother John and Brother Columbanus, only two years tonsured.
The Abbey Administrator, Prior Robert, ambitious and vain, is seeking some saintly relics (at that time they were considered as good as penicillin for what ailed you) to add to the glory of himself as well as the Abbey. Thus, he looks toward Wales, “where it was well known that holy men and women had been common as mushrooms in autumn…”
After a vision by Brother Columbanus, they settle on Winifred of Gwytherin in Wales, and the Abbot sends out a delegation to get her bones. Brother Cadfael goes along as an interpreter. In Gwytherin, the primary opponent of moving the saint, Rhisiart, is murdered, and Brother Cadfael helps solve the crime with the assistance of Sioned, the beautiful daughter of the murdered man.
When Brother Cadfael isn’t solving mysteries, he’s playing matchmaker, helping various young people find love and happiness. This process is assisted by his sense of humor, a wry religious realism, and a generosity of spirit. In addition, he alludes to memories of happiness with women as a young man, so you get a strong image of Anna in “The King and I,” looking out at the starry night and singing:
Hello young lovers, whoever you are,
I hope your troubles are few.
All my good wishes go with you tonight,
I’ve been in love like you.
Be brave, young lovers, and follow your star,
Be brave and faithful and true,
Cling very close to each other tonight.
I’ve been in love like you.
I know how it feels to have wings on your heels,
And to fly down the street in a trance.
You fly down a street on the chance that you meet,
And you meet — not really by chance.
Don’t cry young lovers, whatever you do,
Don’t cry because I’m alone;
All of my memories are happy tonight,
I’ve had a love of my own.
I’ve had a love of my own, like yours-
I’ve had a love of my own.”
Evaluation: This is a book one might call cozy-historical. It’s pleasant enough, although it’s a bit like drinking lite beer. The mystery is fairly obvious, and the characters aren’t fully fleshed out: what we learn about them is pretty much on a need-to-know basis. Still, you get some interesting insights into 12th Century England and Wales, especially into the religious life, and the story is not without its charms. It provides an enjoyable way to pass some time, although to be honest, the next book in the series is better. I would say this first book is one in which Peters sets out the premises of the series, lays some background, and tests her stride. You don’t need to read it to keep going in the series, but you won’t regret reading it, either.
Published by Little Brown and Company, 1977