Reflections on One Corpse Too Many (Cadfael Chronicles) by Ellis Peters

This is not a review. Not wholly. I’ve committed to reading 26 books in 2015, and blogging about them, and while this book wasn’t and isn’t on the list (I started it in 2014, and only read the last tenth or so today) I want to blog about it anyway. This is the second book in the series, which I only started reading relatively recently. It’s a series I’ve been meaning to get to for a while, partly because I’ve seen the adaptations with Derek Jacobi on TV, partly because it is set in a location that’s not too long of a drive from home, and partly out of a desire to branch out more into historical fiction, which I consider a sister or at least a cousin to fantasy, and can inform it.

I found One Corpse Too Many easy to get into, as I had with A Morbid Taste for Bones. What I notice about the prose is a tendency to slightly archaic syntax and sometimes vocabulary too, and occasional telling. The narrative is third person omniscient, usually looking from Cadfael’s point of view and within his thoughts, but with the points of view and internal thoughts of other key characters too. So overall rather at odds with the way I usually write, and yet it remains compelling.

My impression before I picked up these books, based on hazy memories of the TV adaptations, was that these were murder mysteries set in a medieval abbey. And to a certain degree, they are, but these stories take things further than finding out whodunnit. There is an element of everyday drama within them, where Cadfael’s goal isn’t merely to solve the murder, but to solve the other problems of the community of which he is part (or, in A Morbid Taste for Bones, to which he travels) to the satisfaction of all worthy of it. And while, on the back of two books, I have the impression that Cadfael is in some respects too perfect, the conclusions perhaps too neatly arranged at his urging, there is definitely satisfaction in the solutions he contrives.

In my own writing I have worried about endings – and worried rather more about them than I have written of them. I seek to find that balance, where the ending is satisfying, but not too tidy, because life in general isn’t tidy. In these Cadfael books I have read, the ending is eminently tidy, where the key players generally get what they deserve, murder victims excluded, and the younger characters end up in love with the right people. All ends with relatively little grief, except for those who are dead, and no expectation of future drama or imperfection. I think this leans a little too close to tidiness, the loose ends too neatly tied. It leaves it feeling too much like a story. In my own writing, while I certainly enjoyed the satisfaction of how one plotline in particular turned out, I would not imitate this wholly. A satisfyingly tied up plotline at one juncture is uplifting, but in all plotlines feels cheap, sickly sweet perhaps.

More visible here than perhaps in other books, what drives the story is questions to which both Cadfael and I as the reader want answers to. Not just who is the murderer, but several questions about who did what, went where, and why. Questions about how things will turn out, how Cadfael will get his answers, and how the mess of several linked situations will resolve themselves. I don’t tend to think, in my writing, about questions and answers, of mysteries and the revelations of their constituent parts. Maybe there’s a lesson to be drawn in this book about that.

There’s a lesson, too, in one particular character who in the first half of the book is set up to seem one thing, and only revealed, along with his motives, half way through to be quite different from expectations. His motivations were not at all what I expected, but were very human and ordinary. It was a reminder to me that characters don’t necessary have to act based on their ambitions and desires, working towards a personal goal, but can also have goals which are nothing to do with their larger ambitions and long-term hopes, which have an element of selflessness to them, but be no less important to them. I think when I write my characters lack that humanity. I get stuck into this idea of “this is what they want” and don’t leave space for nuance, for different motivations, for goals that have nothing to do with one another while being worked towards simultaneously.

I’ll definitely continue reading the Cadfael series; I’m enjoying the prose and the mystery of them. And in my writing going forward, there’s a little more for me to think about.

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