The Potter's Field is actually the seventeenth book in the Brother Cadfael series, but I had to wait to get my hands on some of the others. In the meantime, the library had The Potter's Field, and I snatched it up. It turns out that I recently rented the video version of the book as well, so the story was rather fresh on my mind.
The story of The Potter's Field is set in 1143, when the priory of St John the Evangelist at Haughmond proposes an exchange with the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul at Shrewsbury. The Haughmond priory owns a field too far to be of use to it -- formerly a potter's field -- and the abbey at Shrewsbury also owns a distant field that could be of benefit to Haughmond. So, the houses exchange, and the Shrewsbury brothers set to work plowing the one-time potter's field. As a quick note, the one-time potter is now a brother at the abbey, having embraced the religious life after choosing to abandon his marriage. As another quick note, the lady didn't take it well.
As the plow works its way through the field, it snags on something unexpected: the remains of a human being with little in the way of identifying features except a full head of black curly hair. The immediate assumption is that the body of the woman must be the wife of the brother who chose the monastic life, except that no one can really believe Brother Ruald would be responsible for the death of his wife Generys. Because there is nothing but the hair of the woman to identify her, there can be no certainty that the body is, in fact, that of Generys.
To add to the confusion, the field once belonged to the Blount family, which released the field to Haughmond just over a year before. Since that time, the senior Eudo Blount has gone to war and been killed, and the younger son Sulien has joined the monastery of Ramsey in Cambridgeshire. As the empress's forces move through Cambridgeshire, they attack and burn Ramsey Abbey, leaving Sulien to return to Shrewsbury. It turns out that Sulien has undergone a crisis of vocation and is reconsidering his choice to join the church. He returns to his family just after hearing about the body that was found and then tells the abbot and sheriff in Shrewsbury that he knows Generys is actually alive. He shows them a ring that belonged to Generys and claims that she was in Cambridgeshire recently with her lover and pawned the ring to make money. As the abbot and sheriff have no solid reason not to believe Sulien, they accept his story and begin looking for a new identity for the woman.
But once again things get confusing. The story undergoes further twists and turns, and Cadfael must work to discover who the woman is and who is responsible for her death -- because there is, after all, no innocent explanation for a body buried unshriven outside the boundaries of church and law. But the final twist proves to be the most unexpected, and a questionable death doesn't necessarily mean what it is assumed to mean. In terms of what happened, this story might be one of my favorites, if only because it wasn't quite as cut-and-dry as some mysteries try to be. Life can be messy, and the choices we make can have far-ranging consequences.
The final thing I'd like to mention in this review is less to do with the book than with the film version. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the film, and I think it was a fair adaptation of a complex story. One of my favorite characters in the story is Eudo Blount's widow, the Lady Donata Blount. She suffers from a severe and painful illness that has lingered with her for years, and yet she bears it patiently and gracefully. For reasons that I don't understand, she is renamed "Astola" in the film. There's nothing wrong with this name, except that she's supposed to be "Donata," and I can't figure out why the name was changed. And if you read the story, she's definitely Donata (a Latinized name that means "gift," "to give," or "given": i.e., she has been given her pain, and she gives it back to God, as she requests that He give her the grace to withstand it). No big deal, really, but it was disappointing. I loved the name and the character, and I looked forward to seeing the film adaptation of Lady Donata. Instead, I got Lady Astola. This is my problem, but as this is also my blog, I feel like mentioning it.
One Corpse Too Many begins in 1138, with England struggling through the civil war that pitted the usurper King Stephen against the claim of his cousin Maud (usually referred to as the Empress Maud, due to her first marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor). Stephen is ready to take Shrewsbury, hindered only by the stronghold of the castle and the supporters of the empress within it.
At the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, Cadfael is (not surprisingly) working in his garden, when a local woman brings a boy to help him. It doesn't take Cadfael long to realize there's more to this boy than meets the eye, and he commits to offering whatever help he can to the child who is caught in a warzone. Around the same time, a new face appears in Shrewsbury to support the king -- Hugh Beringar, a landowner from the area who pledges his loyalty to the king. It turns out, though, that Hugh was at one time betrothed to the daughter of one of the rebels who is holding Shrewsbury Castle against Stephen. After the castle falls, and the rebel leaders have managed to flee, Stephen becomes infuriated and orders two actions to occur: he requires that all of the prisoners from the castle -- 94 in all -- be hanged, and he requires Hugh Beringar to demonstrate his loyalty by locating his former betrothed (who apparently did not escape from Shrewsbury before the castle fell).
As Cadfael dresses the 94 bodies for burial, he discovers a problem: there are not 94 but rather 95. What is more, the ninety-fifth body is not that of an executed man but rather of a murdered man. The king realizes that he cannot overlook a murder, as the murderer clearly took advantage of the king's order to hang the castle rebels, so he allows an investigation to occur. And Cadfael is on the case.
The story has a number of twists and turns, making things a bit too complex for a quick review, but everything pulls together beautifully in the end. The most interesting development is the role of Hugh Beringar and how he proves himself to be an excellent adversary, not to mention friend, for Cadfael. If you are interested in delving into the Cadfael books and watching as Peters lays the groundwork for the series that is to come, this is the book to read.
I have a distinct memory of discussing this book in a previous blog experience, but I'm going to take the risk of sounding repetitive by reviewing it here. On the one hand, I've challenged myself to read all of the Cadfael mysteries over the next few weeks. On the other hand, it's a wonderful story that can withstand a little repetitious discussion.
What's interesting about A Morbid Taste for Bones is that it functions as a stand-alone story, unique in the series. I get the impression that Peters didn't necessarily expect to write an entire series but rather just a single mystery (initially, at least) about a twelfth-century monk. As a result, this first of the Cadfael mysteries isn't typically anthologized with others. (That is to say, when you buy books that contain several of the stories in a single volume, you almost never see this one in the collection. Most collections start with the second book in the series, One Corpse Too Many.) I'm happy to say that she realized what a winner she had on her hands and thus expanded the single story to the series that it became.
The mysteries open in the year 1137, with Cadfael having been in the monastery for about 15 years. He entered the monastery late, after spending his earlier years as a soldier and a Crusader. This experience provided him with the worldly knowledge that serves him well as he faces situations a little outside the realm of most monks. The experience of being in the world for a time also gave him a knowledge about gardening, and about herbs in particular, that provides him with his purpose in the monastery: resident herbalist (who later solves mysteries using his familiarity with herbs). Granted, "twelfth-century herbalist monk who solves mysteries" might not sound like the most promising premise, but it works surprisingly well.
In the opening of A Morbid Taste for Bones, Cadfael is working in his beloved garden with two novices, Brother John and Brother Columbanus. The novices could not be more different, Brother John the common, practical, and decidedly un-monastic young man who somehow stumbled into the cloister, and Brother Columbanus the Norman exemplar who was sent as his family's spiritual offering to the Church (and who has designs for achieving greatness in the Benedictine Order). Meanwhile, Prior Robert, second-in-command at the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul in Shrewsbury, is hot in search of a saint for the abbey. He stumbles -- rather coincidentally -- upon the story of the Welsh St Winifred and manages to conjure up approval from Abbot Heribert to take a party into Wales and claim the saint for their own. Cadfael, who is a native of Wales and is eager for a glimpse of the world, finds a way into the party.
The Shrewsbury party does not exactly receive a resounding welcome in Gwytherin, and the Welsh adamantly resist having their saint removed. The chief in resistance is the local wealthy landowner Rhisiart, but then Rhisiart is killed unexpectedly -- on his way to a meeting with Prior Robert to discuss the situation. Fearing that the saint has had a hand in striking down the man, the Welsh lift their concerns and concede that the prior may claim the remains. Meanwhile, Cadfael realizes that Rhisiart was definitely murdered, and not by a long-deceased saint. Collaborating with Rhisiart's daughter Sioned, Cadfael works to uncover the truth, but the truth turns out to be more than a little problematic for everyone. Fortunately, Cadfael is able to use some of the worldly-wise experience to sort things out in a way that pleases everyone -- even if ignorance has to be bliss for some.
If you cannot commit to the entire series, I'll recommend a few of the books as I go along, and this is definitely one of them. And with this one, you don't miss anything by skipping the others.
I decided not to teach the summer session, so I have a few weeks ahead of me for some extra reading. I've set myself a personal reading challenge. I have the rest of this week and the next seven weeks to get the reading done. My goal is to reading and review the following:
The twenty books in the Brother Cadfael series (by Ellis Peters)
The Faerie Queen (by Edmund Spenser)
I have no doubt that I've bitten off more than I can chew. But the way I see it, a challenge isn't a challenge unless it really stretches me.
You're welcome to join me, in all or part of this, if you'd like. I'm not making this any kind of formal challenge, though.
On a completely unrelated note, I have several outstanding reviews from the Ngaio Marsh books I read a few weeks ago. I can't seem to wrap my mind around what I want to say about them, though, so they're on hold for now.