By the pricking of my thumbs...

By the pricking of my thumbs...

The Cadfael Chronicles has everything a lover of whodunnit needs, including an atmosphere thick enough to slice through.

Cadfael Chronicles

There’s something about a book involving a medieval cloister and mysteries and walled gardens that just screams “get the warmest blanket you have and the cosiest armchair and curl up and read.”

The Name of the Rose set off a thirst in me to go read mysteries set in monasteries and convents. It was inevitable in my hunt that I would stumble upon Brother Cadfael — I found him in the narrow but delightful aisles of Blossom Book House. The books were pre-loved, but whoever gave them away had the good sense to sell them all. So there was no chance of getting disappointed that you wouldn’t be able to read all 20 mysteries.

The Cadfael Chronicles, set in a Benedictine monastery in the 12th century, when what is now England was in political turmoil, were written by Edith Pargeter under the pen name Ellis Peters. The monastery, in Shrewsbury, is the location for most of the stories with occasional forays to Welsh forests and towns nearby and even the coast. A pioneer of historical crime fiction, Pargeter was an Edgar Award winner and in 1993, won the Cartier Diamond Dagger for her lifetime’s work. She was also a renowned translator of Czech literature.

Brother Cadfael, her most popular creation, was a veteran of the Crusades who has returned to Shrewsbury Abbey to take up the role of a herbalist there. With his in-depth knowledge of natural cures, potions, and a greater understanding of the dark corners of the human psyche, Cadfael is the perfect detective for the age. He’s never the central protagonist in these stories, but is there, often by the side of the reader, watching the great human drama unfold.

Like most mystery series, it’s best to start at the beginning. A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first of the Cadfael Chronicles and has a juicy premise. The head of the Abbey wants to acquire the bones of St Winifred and Brother Cadfael is part of the group sent off to the Welsh countryside to get them. But the villagers are resistant to the offer from the monks and soon enough, murder-by-arrow happens.

It’s all there for the lover of a good whodunnit: impeccable historical detail, a dogged sleuth who just happens to be a monk, the tensions of religious beliefs and political aspirations, corruption of ideals and an atmosphere so thick and believable, you could scoop it up as you read.

The Cadfael Chronicles brought Edith Pargeter global fame and success starting at the age of 63 — showing that for a great storyteller, age is no barrier. After A Morbid Taste for Bones came out in 1977, Pargeter would go on to write Cadfael mysteries for the next two decades. They would be made into a TV series and films and set a standard for historical crime fiction so high that the Crime Writers Association would establish the Ellis Peters Award for the best works in the genre.

While it has always seemed contradictory to call stories revolving around acts of violence cosy murders, there’s a reason why the Cadfael Chronicles do seem to fit that description. Like his creator, Cadfael believed in the innate goodness of humans — that no matter what crimes and misdemeanours they get up to, the human soul is redeemable in the end. And for that alone, in these times, Brother Cadfael is the best literary companion possible.

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The author is a Bangalore-based writer and communications professional with many published short stories and essays to her credit.