"I am telling you, my lord Prestcote, there is a murdered man among your executed men, a leaf hidden in your forest." Thus does Brother Cadfael inform King Stephen's man that an additional body has been placed by someone amongst those who have been hanged for their treason against the king. Who placed him there? And why?
The second book in the Cadfael series was published in 1979. Although it contains largely the same Abbey personnel as the first, this time its mood is different. For a start, there are no journeys into the hills of North Wales; rather, the plot is focussed centrally on the town of Shrewsbury. Secondly, the forces of history impedes to a greater degree, as we are present at the successful siege of the town by King Stephen: the civil war between Stephen and Matilda is now well to the fore.
We are also introduced to Hugh Berengar, the future sheriff that will appear in the remaining eighteen books of the series. They both commence their acquaintance by being cautious in their approach to one another. Late in the book, Berengar accuses Cadfael of being an alchemist: even of being a wizard. Ironically, this is moments before discovering that Cadfael has cheated him of his expected treasure. But Ellis Peters views her characters under an older system of virtues, with Cadfael stating to Berengar that the latter would never value a trifle of gold above his self-esteem. When Berengar is appointed deputy sheriff in the closing scenes, did Peters envisage that he would play such a prominent role in future episodes?
As usual, Peters's Cadfael whodunits do not rely on cliffhangers at the end of each chapter. No, her work relies more on intellect and atmosphere to draw the reader on. The plot is well-formulated, though relying on the usual chance encounters, such as that between Cadfael and Osbern in chapter eleven. And there are, as usual, some facts or omissions that make the story work, such as the abbey's authorities not having too tight a rein on Godith or Godric when within the abbey precincts - or without, and also on the precinct being open to its south. But these are minor criticisms and I look forward to reading the third in the chronicles of Brother Cadfael.