Cadfael has long been one of the mainstays of historical fiction, with the twenty or so volumes written by Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter if you prefer) prior to her death in 1995 proving exceptionally popular and spawning a television series starring Derek Jacobi predominantly for the UK market. If like me you are of “the younger generation” these are probably among the large collection of strange covered books you'd find on your mother's bookshelf that have never seemed remotely compelling, even if you saw the television series and liked it.
My affair with the books themselves has been relatively brief so far (I have only read the first three) but it is already apparent that One Corpse Too Many is going to be one of the highlights of the saga. Although technically the second book in the series (after A Morbid Taste For Bones) this book introduces many of the regular features and characters in the series, most notably Hugh Beringar who serves as a partner and companion in Cadfaels many investigations from here. The first book is good, but One Corpse Too Many is a truly great work of fiction.
The plot centers around the town of Shrewsbury where supporters of the Empress Maud have taken refuge against King Stephen. If the history means nothing to you then rest assured that it is never shoved down your throat in the manner common in other less intelligent offerings from the genre; you are given as much knowledge as you need within its pages but never so much that it feels like school all over again. Stephen gains entry to the castle and orders its ninety-four defenders to the gallows for treason, but when Brother Cadfael from nearby Shrewsbury monastery is asked to prepare the dead for burial he discovers an extra corpse among the dead...
The mystery is compelling but like all good books the appeal runs deeper still. The characters are well formed, including the initially enigmatic Beringar, the rebellious and tom-boyish Godith, the brave and kind-hearted Aline and of course Cadfael himself. The protagonist is the strength of these books being at once a Benedictine monk devoted to his faith yet also in possession of the common sense and forgiveness that those of devout faith can sometimes lack. This is adequately explained, along with an extensive knowledge of poisons and herbs, by his previous career as a soldier in the crusades.
But the characters alone do not make this book great, but rather Ellis Peter's extraordinarily compelling writing style. This is not The Matrix in book form, it is a book about a sombre, slower more contemplative time but it is a world that through the writer's eyes never seems boring. There have been precious few novels from the genre of historical fiction that I have suffered the whole way through, even those based around wars have often felt unbearably dry to me, but Cadfael doesn't. Where there is action, the tension is infectious, and likewise where there is need for stealth. The descriptions are vivid, beautiful, but never so long that you lose interest. Add to that our protagonist along with the book's pleasantly spiritual core and One Corpse Too Many becomes something rather special.
So whether you are a historical fiction fan or someone who wouldn't dream of reading it, I would recommend giving this book ago. It's short enough that you won't feel cheated if it's not your thing, but there's a good chance you'll find more than you expect between its pages.