This book was a genre pioneer, when first published in 1977, mixing historical fiction with a murder mystery. This the first “chronicle” of Brother Cadfael, a 12th Century monk with a detective bent, whose exploits were recounted in 20 such “chronicles”.
The prior of Shrewsbury Abbey, envious of other abbeys’ holy relics, embarks on a journey to Wales in the hope of procuring the remains of St Winifred. One of the brothers, Columbanus has a fit and claims to have had a vision from St Winifred, this is taken as a sign by Prior Robert for their quest. Brother Cadfael had been happily tending the Benedictine garden of the abbey but as a Welsh speaker he persuades the Prior to let him accompany the party to Wales to act as a translator, with his assistant Brother John, who could act as a groom to the party’s horses and mules. Despite having the approval of the Bishop of Bangor and the King of Gwynedd, the party from England are met with resistance by the Welsh locals, when it is understood they wish to take their Welsh saint’s remains back to England. One opponent, Rhisiart, proves especially stubborn and the Prior tries unsuccessfully to bribe him. A short while later, Rhisiart is found dead with an arrow sticking out of him. Suspicion falls first on an outlander, Engelard, a refugee from England, where he was wanted for poaching, he had motive, he wanted to marry Sioned, Rhisiart’s daughter but Rhisiart was opposed to her marrying outside the clan. Sioned and Cadfael aren’t convinced of Engelard’s guilt and start investigating.
The “Brother” of Brother Cadfael is dropped after page 41, I guess it sounded too laborious. although the title returns some way through chapter nine. The historical detail seems well researched and authentic and the mystery makes the book a page turner. It is easy to see how this book initiated a series of books using the same monk-detective.
My rating 5 out of 5
Read December 2014