A Morbid Taste For Bones by Ellis Peters #1977club

This week, Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon of Stuck in a Book are hosting another of their clubs where bloggers read and write about books published in one particular year. The chosen year this time is 1977 and although at first I thought I might have problems finding anything I wanted to read from that year, it turned out I had two suitable books already. One of them was A Morbid Taste for Bones, the first book in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mystery series. I’ve been meaning to read this series for years, so 1977 Club seemed like the perfect opportunity to begin!

A Morbid Taste for Bones is set in the spring of 1137 and we first meet Brother Cadfael in the gardens of Shrewsbury Abbey tending the herbs with the assistance of two younger monks, John and Columbanus. John is a down-to-earth, practical young man, although Cadfael doubts whether he has a true vocation for the religious life, while Columbanus is starting to make a name for himself with his visions and dramatic ‘falling fits’. Returning from a trip to St Winifred’s Well in Gwytherin, North Wales, Columbanus claims that the saint has appeared to him, saying that her bones are being neglected by the people of Gwytherin and that she would like to be moved to Shrewsbury Abbey where more pilgrims will be able to visit her. Cadfael can’t help thinking that this seems very convenient, as Prior Robert has been considering ways to attract pilgrims to the Abbey and obtaining the bones of a saint would be the perfect solution!

As a Welshman, Cadfael is chosen as one of a small party of monks to travel into Wales and bring the saint’s relics back to Shrewsbury. However, when they reach Gwytherin they are met with resistance from the local people who don’t want to lose Winifred, especially not to England. Tensions rise and when a murder takes place in the woods, Cadfael works with the victim’s daughter to try to find the killer before an innocent man is accused.

I enjoyed my first Cadfael novel and part of the reason for that was because I really liked the character of Cadfael himself, with his mixture of warmth and intelligence, tolerance and imagination. Having entered the monastery later in life, he has a sort of worldliness that helps him to understand the feelings and motivations of people in the ‘outside world’. This allows him to have some sympathy for Brother John, who is struggling to reconcile his faith with other temptations, and also for Sioned, the young woman from Gwytherin whose father’s murder forms the mystery aspect of the novel.

I loved the way Peters portrays life in a small Welsh community: the village hierarchy, the farming of the land, what people did for entertainment, and most of all, how they felt about monks from England coming to take away the remains of a Welsh saint against their will. I was interested to learn, after finishing the book, that this was based on historical fact and Winifred’s relics really were taken from Wales to Shrewsbury Abbey where they remained until the dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a heavy or dry historical novel, though, because it isn’t – I found it entertaining and very readable. I already knew I liked Ellis Peters’ writing because I read one of her Cadfael short stories in a Christmas anthology last year, but I think her style is better suited to a full-length novel than it is to the shorter form and I enjoyed this much more. It’s also a good example of how to write a murder mystery without including an excessive amount of violence or unnecessarily graphic descriptions. A good choice for 1977 Club and a promising start to a new series for me!


I should have another 1977 book to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are a few older reviews I have posted of books published in that year:

The Brethren by Robert Merle
The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian
Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons by Gerald Durrell
Gildenford by Valerie Anand

33 thoughts on “A Morbid Taste For Bones by Ellis Peters #1977club

  1. Pam Thomas says:

    This, of course, was the novel that really started the vogue for historical mysteries. I liked the Cadfael series (and the TV dramas with the wonderful Derek Jacobi) but after a while their cosiness did become a little cloying. My mother, a massive fan, always said that this was her favourite. If you want to read more, I’d recommend just two or three at a time, dipping in and out.
    Have you read her ‘Heaven Tree’ trilogy (as Edith Pargeter)?

    • Helen says:

      I’m sure I will want to read at least a few more, but I’ll take your advice and space them out. I haven’t read the Heaven Tree trilogy yet, although I do have a copy of the first book which I’m hoping to read soon.

  2. Isabella says:

    There are some lovely versions playing on BBC 4 extra radio which bring a different feel from the Jacobi take on the stories

  3. Ruthiella says:

    Great review! I also read this book and reviewed it but your review is better than mine. I agree that Cadfael is the real draw, such a great character. I was worried that the book would seem anachronistic with him being a jack of all trades, but I never got that feeling at all.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you liked Cadfael too! He is a great character, isn’t he? I didn’t notice any anachronisms either. I’ll come over and read your review. 🙂

  4. elainethomp says:

    I read quite a few as they were coming out, but eventually the series settled into a pattern and once I spotted the pattern, the books became irritating, and as someone said above: too cozy. I keep the first couple around because they’re different. My absolute favorite is the second, for Beringer, the antagonist.

    • Helen says:

      I would like to read more of these books, but I can imagine them becoming quite repetitive. I will read the second one at least and will look forward to meeting Beringer.

  5. FictionFan says:

    I read a lot of the Cadfael novels as they came out during the ’70s and ’80s and they were my first intro to historical crime fiction – I think they were the first real historical crime series? I still always enjoy revisiting them, though it’s been a while. Thanks for the reminder of this one – a favourite! Hope you continue to enjoy the series. 😀

    • Helen says:

      I can’t really think of any earlier historical crime novels, so these probably were amongst the first. I really enjoyed this one, but my track record with reading long series is not very good so it could be a while before I remember to pick up the next one!

  6. Elizabeth Bailey says:

    I loved both books and TV series. For me the books give such a rich depth of atmosphere that I feel as if I am there. The period detail and the monastic life are so beautifully done. Derek Jacobi was perfect in the role but the Hugh Berengers (of which there were several) never quite matched the book.
    I recommend Veronica Black and her Vow series as a more modern take on a monastic murder mystery. Very well done and quite riveting.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I loved the atmosphere she creates in this book and the detail which places the story in its time period without being overwhelming. I have looked up the Vow series and I’m intrigued to see that Veronica Black is a pseudonym of Maureen Peters, whose books I’ve read under her own name. I’ll have to try that series!

    • Helen says:

      I had been intending to make a start on this series for a long time, so I’m pleased the 1977 Club has given me a push into picking the first book up.

  7. Pam Thomas says:

    I couldn’t think of any earlier historical crime series either, but I’ve just remembered one – the Judge Dee novels of Robert van Gulik, which were written in, I think, the 50s and 60s. There was a TV dramatisation of them, which I enjoyed as a teenager. A long time ago, and certainly pre-Cadfael!

    • Helen says:

      I wondered if someone would come up with an earlier series than Cadfael! I have never read the Judge Dee books – or seen the TV series either.

    • Helen says:

      I think this is an example of historical fiction done very well – and, of course, there’s the mystery to enjoy as well, so it could still be worth trying even if you’re not usually a fan of historical novels.

  8. jessicabookworm says:

    Helen, I have always been tempted by this series, so great to hear your enjoyed this so much. My dad has one random book from the series, because a character in it has our surname (which is a little unusual). Maybe I should dig it out and give it a go. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I have always liked the sound of these books too, so I’m pleased I’ve finally had the chance to read one! I would definitely recommend digging out your dad’s book. 🙂

  9. buriedinprint says:

    This is one of the first mysteries that I read when I first “discovered” the genre as an adult (as a girl I used to love mysteries too, but I lost the habit of reading them for some time). I liked it but never continued with the series. I did, however, get a copy of the book on cassette tape at some point and it was such a soothing (and low-fi production) that it was like being read to every night, and, so, I used it to fall asleep when I couldn’t settle my thoughts. So I have probably heard the story – the beginning of it anyway – countless times!

    • Helen says:

      I can imagine it being a soothing book to listen to. I’m determined to make an effort to continue with this series – I’m very good at reading the first book in a series and then forgetting to pick up the second!

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