Amid the carnage of a civil war, especially one that erupts during the death-haunted Middle Ages, an extra cadaver might not mean very much. But it means something to Brother Cadfael, a Shropshire monk who mixes herbs, dabbles in the amorous complications of noble young folk, and solves the occasional murder mystery. Following a victorious siege at Shrewsbury against forces loyal to the Empress Maud, King Stephen orders the hanging of all who had resisted him during that battle. He then charges Cadfael with tending to the dead. But the diligent friar, expecting to find 94 bodies to inter, discovers a 95th corpse among the slain warriors. Who is it (or who was it), and how did he come to die?
It’s a neat premise, one that sets the stage for some sharp detective work by Cadfael. With a rigor that seems post-medieval (even as it reveals glimpses of how life was lived in the England of 1138), Cadfael establishes how and why the squire Nicholas Faintree succumbed not to the king’s justice, but rather to a murderer’s greedy passion. Alas, Peters devotes only a small portion of her tale to detection, and instead fills much of it with the routine stuff of historical romance: stolen treasure, mistaken identities, a knightly duel, a case of temporarily star-crossed love. The tapestry that she weaves out of such material, though rich in color, delivers relatively threadbare satisfaction. What truly captures one’s imagination is that shrewd and likable monk, with his knack for discerning the proverbial figure in the carpet.