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More of a whydunnit than a whodunnit
on 10 July 2002
The big mystery throughout this eighth of Ellis Peters' Chronicles of Brother Cadfael is not really who, in the depths of the Salop countryside one day in the late summer of the year of Our Lord 1140, committed murder most foul upon the person of Peter Clemence, cleric to Bishop Henry of Bois - but why! And also just what the connection might be between the unfortunate demise of a harmless cleric - seemingly not even relieved of his valuables - and the latest candidate to be accepted into the noviciate of Shrewsbury's abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the nineteen-year-old, Meriet Aspley. For it is obvious, from the very opening of this book, to both reader and Brother Cadfael alike, that there is some dark secret haunting the latest entrant to the abbey. There is also little doubt that the sad fate of Peter Clemence has some bearing upon it. Equally obvious is that the mediaeval sleuth will need to have not only his wits but also all of his tact about him too, if he is to winkle out the truth behind matters here, both of the circumstances of the cleric's death and of young Meriet Aspley's sudden-found yearning for life within the cloister.
In her usual manner, Ellis Peters drip-feeds her hero and her readers alike with tantalising but measured trickles of information, permitting both to proceed but piecemeal (and at about the same pace as each other) towards the final revelation and the story's sudden resolution. Along the way, we are treated to the author's characteristically over-glamorised view of Mediaeval English life, with her entirely comforting (and rather touching) view of the honest goodness of the (Saxon) poor, as well as the essentially corrupt nature of those who would aspire to power (usually those overbearing Normans, of course).
In common with others of this series, this book presents a mix of romance and murder mystery, all set against a back-drop of political intrigue. In essence, then, we have here another classic from the Cadfael mould - an engaging read that taxes neither imagination nor credulity over much and which provides some fascinating glimpses of how things might have been in twelfth century Salop. It can be recommended to both established Cadfael fans and newcomers alike.