A belated Happy New Year to you all. This month we’re taking a look at a historical murder mystery series; possibly one of the first, begun in 1977.
There are twenty Cadfael novels, set in Shrewsbury, England, during the 12th century. I’m not generally a big fan of crime novels and mysteries, but I find the historical ones interesting because of the ways characters have to find to solve things without the benefits of modern technology, and this series also benefits from great characters and an enjoyable writing style.
Cadfael is a Benedictine monk and most of the stories take place in and around the Abbey and its grounds. He’s the herbalist and medicine-maker for the monastery and ends up drawn into the various crimes because unlike his fellow monks he came to the life late and has real-world experience to draw on; he was a soldier in one of the many Crusades and thus has some expertise in wounds and much more advanced medical techniques.
He’s a nice cheerful protagonist, with a good balance of cynicism and optimism; he’s curious about the world around him and a very good judge of human nature, and his fellow monks aren’t just bland stereotypes but distinct personalities and they feel like a very real group of people, with all the problems that entails. The various heroes and villains of the books are all well developed (including the women; the whole series is surprisingly progressive and equal considering the setting) and mostly sympathetic, and again all feel very real. There’s a bit of humour running through everything and some clever twists here and there, and according to people far more knowledgeable than I am the whole series is very historically accurate and touches on a lot of real events of the period. Some of the happy endings are a little trite, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The first in the series is A Morbid Taste for Bones; the individual plots all stand alone so it’s not absolutely necessary to read them in order, but there are recurring characters and minor plot threads so it’s probably a good idea.
There is a TV adaptation comprising thirteen episodes, though I haven’t managed to see all of them yet. Very sensibly they stuck to adapting the books and made no attempt to write original stories. A lot of the monks are superbly cast, I all but applauded Oswin (the actor plays a very similar character in the British soap Emmerdale) and Jerome and Robert are perfectly irritating and wonderfully punchable, particularly Jerome. Season One’s Hugh Beringar is also good, which makes it hard to like his successors.
Derek Jacobi is a great actor but in my opinion wrong for Cadfael, he’s not humourous enough or peasant enough (and certainly not Welsh enough, Cadfael being Welsh is a minor plot point in several books rather than merely authorial whim), though he did grow on me over time. A lot of the side role actors are really, really bad, though there are some gems who hopefully advanced their careers. (I think a lot of them did, I spent some time thinking ‘Aaargh who is that’ in almost every episode.) Acting aside, the adaptation is fairly good and fairly faithful to the source material, though as ever the books are better and occasionally there are some bizarre leaps away from the original. I’m not sure how easy some of the plots would be to follow without knowledge of the books, though; it’s easy to lose track of who’s who.
There are also a scattering of radio episodes that I haven’t managed to find, and all the books are available on audio.