Pros: Interesting, unusual story, no one is murdered, wily wonderful Cadfael
Cons: Transparency, deus ex machina to the rescue
It's August, 1141, and the Civil War between King Stephen and the Empress Maud is heating up. Maud has taken Stephen captive, leading up to a rearranging of alliances. The king's brother, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, supported Stephen, then Maud, now Stephen again, and Maud was mightily ticked. Despite all expectations, she surrounded Winchester and laid siege to it. But while she wasn't looking, Queen Mathilda had gathered an army and was surrounding hers.
Among the casualties are Hyde Meade Priory and a nunnery. Two of the brothers from Hyde sought refuge at the Shrewsbury abbey, a fellow Benedictine house, where Brother Cadfael had retired some years earlier. About 60 years old, Cadfael had been a Crusader and a sailor. He now tends the abbey's herb garden and solves one murder per book, except, of course, when there is no murder.
The older of the two monks is also a former crusader, Brother Humilis. He's chosen Shrewsbury because he was born in the area and, as is plain to see, he's not long for this world. He's tended by the younger monk who is mute, Brother Fidelis. Not much is known about him other than that he is the younger son of a manor in the area and came with a small endowment. Humilis expresses gratitude for Fidelis' attention and admits that he doesn't deserve it.
Before he left for the Holy Land, Humilis was engaged to a girl who was then a small child. However, he has since been maimed in a way that will not permit marriage—it's this wound that is slowly killing him. Three years ago, he sent a young man in his service to deliver the news to the girl's family that he was taking the cowl and was releasing her from the engagement.
This same young man, Nicholas, now visits him at Shrewsbury, asking him a favor. With his permission, he'd like to court the lady himself. Humilis is only too happy to agree.
When Nicholas goes to her family, he finds that she has left to enter a nunnery about three years earlier and her family has had no word from her in all that time.
This is probably the oddest Cadfael book I've come across. At 190 pages, it's also one of the shortest. There is a mystery to solve, but it doesn't involve murder. It became apparent to me fairly early on what the mystery was. The mopping up isn't handled as deftly as it was in A Morbid Taste for Bones, relying on a deus ex machina quite literally. Usually, these would be serious, if not fatal, flaws in my humble estimation, but I was prepared to overlook them simply because I was enjoying the story. Just the same, A Morbid Taste for Bones is a much better book, without question.
Cadfael is at his wily Cadfael best, arranging a conspiracy that would earn the respect of any black helicopter watcher, saving the reputation of all with a bit of sleight of hand and a straight face— making sure he doesn't miss one of the offices while he's getting all his ducks lined up. There are also little details that might appeal to the history geek, such as the toy knights that Cadfael and his godson play with.
For the dedicated Cadfael buff, this is a slam dunk. For those not taken with Cadfael, this may not be your cup of tea.
#1 A Morbid Taste for Bones
#2 One Corpse Too Many
#3 Monk's Hood
#12 The Raven in the Foregate
#17 The Potter's Field
#18 The Summer of The Danes
Lean-n-Mean and 565 words