One Corpse Too Many (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #2)

Read:  2017

Author:  Ellis Peters

Published:  1979

Genre:  Historical Fiction, Mystery

Pages:  292 (paperback)

Selected By:  Elle Tea

Elle Tea’s Score:  Scoring Great Book

“In the summer of 1138, war between King Stephen and the Empress Maud takes Brother Cadfael from the quiet world of his garden into a battlefield of passions, deceptions, and death.  Not far from the safety of the abbey walls, Shrewsbury Castle falls, leaving its ninety-four defenders loyal to the empress to hang as traitors.  With a heavy heart, Brother Cadfael agrees to bury the dead, only to make a grisly discovery: one extra victim that has been strangled, not hanged.

“This ingenious way to dispose of a corpse tells Brother Cadfael that the killer is both clever and ruthless.  But one death among so many seems unimportant to all but the good Benedictine.  He vows to find the truth behind disparate clues: a girl in boy’s clothing, a missing treasure, and a single broken flower… the tiny bit of evidence that Cadfael believes can expose a murderer’s black heart.”  – from the Amazon summary.

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Elle Tea’s Review

This is my second Cadfael review, the first being primarily an introduction to the series, so I won’t go back into that information again and will instead focus solely on this particular selection.

… life could only be sustained by refusing to let it be disrupted, by war, catastrophe, or death.

One Corpse Too Many is one of my favorites of the series… and one of my least favorites of the series.  I love it in that it gives a fresh perspective to the Anarchy and introduces my second-favorite character of the series (with the first clearly being Cadfael himself): Hugh Beringar.  And I dislike it in that the story itself just never quite seems to grab hold of me like the others do.

“But I value devotion and fidelity, and doubt if it matters whether the object falls short.  What you do and what you are is what matters.”

The novel focuses more on the struggle between the opposing forces of the Anarchy, and, in fact, King Stephen himself appears quite frequently and is called upon to force swift changes in the plot.  It’s easy when reading analytical, non-fiction history books to find yourself getting lost in the details, to succumb to looking back with a modern mind full of all of the knowledge of who did what correctly and what might have changed everything and swayed the outcomes an entirely different direction.  But while Empress Maud was clearly the legitimate successor on paper due to her direct lineage to the previous king (Henry I) as well as the oaths made by his court to remain loyal to her upon her father’s death, she had also been away from England longer than she had been in it, having moved to Germany as a child to fulfill her marriage contract and traveled to Italy and across Europe with her husband (Henry V, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) until his death, at which point she relocated to Normandy and married the ambitious Geoffrey of Anjou.  Her cousin, on the other hand, was in England.  He was there, ready to claim the throne with the backing of the Church and a majority of Henry I’s court.  And it is this fact that becomes a major, if subtle, focus of this novel.

The ugliness that man can do to man might cast a shadow between you and the certainty of the justice and mercy God can do to him hereafter.  It takes half a lifetime to reach the spot where eternity is always visible, and the crude injustice of the hour shrivels out of sight.

King Stephen’s presence is felt throughout the story, from the moment his forces move in with him at their head until the moment he walks off the page, he is there.  His mercurial temperament is quite believable, as the true Stephen was clearly a charming man who constantly seemed to be at war with himself, pitting his desire to be honorable and good against the need to firmly establish security for himself and his line in the midst of a civil war in which no middle ground could be permitted.  By contrast, the fact that Empress Matilda’s forces are fighting blindly, without her direct leadership or guidance, makes her absence even more obvious and brings to the fore feelings of awe at their loyalty and dedication; the ninety-four men who hang for defending the castle in her name were not lords or members of any court – they were common people who believed in a cause enough to fight for it, to die for it, and nothing more.

“All the things of the wild have their proper uses, only misuse makes them evil.”

Cadfael wisely chooses neither side, remarking only that he can understand both sides’ complaints and sees fault only with the breaking of oaths, a practice he finds dishonorable, even from King Stephen himself (who had been among those in Henry I’s court to promise his loyalty to his cousin).  At that point, he makes the finding of the murder of the mysterious ninety-fifth man his priority.

“In such dreadful times as these no one can do more than choose his own road according to his conscience, and bear the consequences of his choice, whatever they may be.”

But the turmoil of the two warring factions continues in the struggle to find the missing ringleaders of the castle rebellion, as well as their squires, who made off with gold plate and jewelry with instructions to get it as quickly as possible to those who could ensure the treasure would fund Empress Maud’s armies.  The daughter of one of the ringleaders was also present in the castle and gives us our first glimpse of the lengths a woman had to go to in medieval England in order to move alone and in safety; she wastes no time cutting her hair boyishly short, taking up a boy’s name, and donning the guise of a young novitiate.  Cadfael betrays surprisingly modern sensibilities with his easy acceptance of her situation and willingness to assist her, characteristics that would not have been shared by the other monks of the abbey and are clearly available to Cadfael only due to the fact that he traveled so extensively for so long before taking the habit.

“You value yourself too high to value a trifle of gold above your self-esteem.”

Tangled amidst the murder mystery and the politics are two love stories, a duel to the death, and, of course, Hugh Beringar.  Hugh gets a tough go of it in the TV series, so I again urge you to hold off on watching the television show until you’ve read at least a few of the novels; in the televised versions, Beringar and Cadfael come together only to come apart, while in the novels they are two equally clever but very different men standing on opposite sides of the war, but they respect one another enough to value their friendship above all else.

… every untimely death, every man cut down in his vigour and strength without time for repentance and reparation, is one corpse too many.

The only issue I had with this particular selection within the series is that, as I said, the story itself is somehow lacking to me.  Not enough to hurt its score too terribly, but, when compared to the remaining books in the Chronicles, it’s never interested me as much as the others.  There was so much potential here, with King Stephen and the great void of Matilda’s absence, that it seemed almost a waste to have the time spent on two love stories when I would have preferred to have at least one of them (the squire and the lady, since it’s not integral to the overall series) sacrificed in favor of focusing a bit more on Stephen and his court.

But all in all, another great addition to a fabulous series.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle version of this novel.

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