July 2003

ONE CORPSE TOO MANY

By Ellis Peters
The Mysterious press - a division of Warner Books
Copyright 1979 by Ellis Peters

First Mysterious press printing March 1994

More people are probably familiar with Brother Cadfael, the 12th century Benedictine monk who is hero of this second chronicle of his adventures, through the WGBH-TV series MYSTERY than have read the novels on which the series is based.

By now I've read or listened to more than half of the series. This one is a particularly strong entry. The Cadfael novels have as their backdrop a civil war being raged between the legitimate ruler, the hot-blooded and impetuous King Stephen, and his cousin, the self-proclaimed Empress Maude. Their fortunes ebb and flow across the landscape, and the Brother Cadfael mysteries generally open with a recapitulation of events on the broader canvas of the civil war. From there we get some local color. Peters really is very good at this sort of thing, and as a result the Brother Cadfael novels can be a pretty painless way to learn a little British history. Not all of the characters are historical, but many are. The Abbey, too, is an actual place, though gone to ruin now.

In ONE CORPSE TOO MANY, the fortunes of war have hit particularly close to home. King Stephen has just taken the castle at Shrewsbury. Its defenders, loyal to the Empress, have been decimated. Almost none have escaped. Stephen, normally an easy-going monarch, slow to anger and quick to forgive, knows he has to make an example of these men. So he has them hanged.

The monks of the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Shrewsbury, then, have the sad responsibility of preparing ninety-four corpses for burial. The Abbot selects Cadfael, formerly a soldier and Crusader before taking his vows, to see to the grim task. But when Cadfael comes at last to count the men laid out in the chapel, he discovers that there are ninety-five, not ninety-four. The extra man has been strangled, not hanged. In other words, he has been murdered. Cadfael determines to get to the bottom of the mystery, with Stephen's blessing. The King is, after all, by no means pleased to have been made an accessory to someone else's crime. It's up to Cadfael to sort through a puzzling and seemingly unrelated collection of clues, including a girl in boy's clothing, a treasure gone missing, and a single dried herb, to locate a pitiless but clever killer.

After having read about King Stephen in a number of other books in the series, it's interesting to actually have the young monarch brought onstage. This novel also introduces Cadfael's foil, Hugh Beringar, who will one day become the Sheriff of Shrewsbury and Cadfael's closest friend. But in this book they have yet to establish their mutual trust. We are also introduced to Hugh's future wife, the lovely young Aline Siward, whose brother is among those executed by King Stephen.

Some might find the Cadfael books a bit slow going, plotwise - after all, as with science-fiction there's a good bit of background detail to fill in concerning 12th century life. Personally, I find it fascinating. Peters characterizes quite well, and seems to have a complete grasp of the politics of the time. Cadfael himself is a delightful creation, although, as is the case with many series heroes, he changes little from book to book. In the WGBH series Cadfael was well played by Derek Jacobi, a distinctive actor. When I read one of these delightful books, however, I hear the cadence of the Audiobook narrator, Patrick Tull, whose rendition of Cadfael's Welsh-tinged English has enlivened many hours of my commute.

Mystery fans who are looking for something a little different may well find the canny Brother Cadfael, who would have been right at home as a forensic investigator in the 20th or even 21st century, to their liking. He is indeed a rare Benedictine.



Recent Raves:

Several! The film Holes deserves a review in itself. Great stuff, and top-notch performances from Sigourney Weaver and Jon Voight. I've got the book, so I think I'll read and review that. (After three chapters, I'm loving it.) The animated movie Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, from Dreamworks, was surprisingly enjoyable. Mmmmm... summer movies... Although, having said that, see what I think of Terminator 3, below.

Here's something different: An online treasure-hunt. The bonus is, the site is simply beautiful, and it has top-flight contributors, like Rupert Sheldrake and Terry Pratchett, et many al. Timehunt!

Wanna talk to John Lennon? Visit the John Lennon Artificial Intelligence Project. Guarantee: It's like nothing else online. Bonus: Another dynamite web interface. Don't like John? Then talk to Jack the Ripper!


Less Than Good:

Let us consider Ah-node's Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines... Frankly, for my money they could and should have stopped at Terminator 2: Judgement Day, because that was a much better movie. Essentially T3 is exactly the same as T2 but less original. Lots of explosions and shooting, lots of Arnie stalking around looking grim. Some good moments, and I can't say that the film really sucks -- but clearly it's played for laughs at some points, and this is a big mistake. The obvious rib-pokes rob the film of a lot of the suspense its antecedants possessed, and despite the excellent fx (including a really bitchin' scene with the female Terminator magnetized to a particle-accelerator and melting into it) the film never really recovers. Overall, not a bad way to spend your entertainment money, and the story does add a few new things -- but none of the characters are as interesting as Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. And even the new Terminator isn't as cool as Robert Patrick in T2, for all that she is a major babe.

Killing Time
By Caleb Carr
Originally published November, 2000.
Jules Verne redux. This uninspired sf novel by Caleb Carr, author of the excellent historical thrillers The Alienist (reviewed here) and Dark Angel, reads like Verne's Master of the World updated to the 21st century. Instead of Robur, however, we are served up a pair of genetically manipulated (and sexually abused) siblings who are out to convince the world of 2023 that its blind dependence on the Internet is going to lead to destruction. To prove their point, they and a cadre of conniving scientists travel the world in a flying/swimming super-vehicle like Robur's Albatross (though, oddly, never named or even really well described), tampering with historical information. They have "proved" that George Washington was murdered, that Stalin was complicitous in the Nazi death camps, and so on. They intend to reveal their fakery at a critical juncture, at which point the world will supposedly blink in astonishment and mend its credulous ways. But the world has grown so jaded and gullible that no one believes the fake information really is fake. The narrator is a psychological profiler caught up in the siblings' scheme, and vamped by the gorgeous, murderous sister. But even on paper these two have no chemistry, and the book limps along to an aggravating deus ex machina conclusion. There's nothing new here, and seasoned sf readers will be yawning before the novel is halfway through. A dreary come-down from the brilliance of The Alienist. I suspect that this is an early novel, written before The Alienist and Dark Angel, and released to capitalize on their success. It's a trunk novel that should have stayed there.