One Corpse Too Many


Ellis Peters


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

November 8, 2020

ne Corpse Too Many is the second novel in the string of Brother Cadfael mystery novels. The books are set in 12th century England, in the town of Shrewsbury. Brother Cadfael is a monk at the Saint Peter and Saint Paul abbey. Previously, Cadfael had been a crusader, but at the advanced age of 40, he gave up the sword and settled into the contemplative life as a monk, tending his garden and cultivating medicinal herbs. But although Cadfael seeks to retire from trials of the world, the outside world comes to the abbey and intrudes upon his quiet life.

Shrewsbury is near the border of Wales, it is in the western side of England. As the tale opens, King Stephen is engaged in civil war with the Empress Maud, as each vie to rule England. Stephen's army has come to the castle as Shrewsbury, which stands on the side of Maud. The castle is surrounded, and the final assault is imminent. The desperate defenders hold out, but are overwhelmed. Enraged that anyone would defy his right to rule, King Stephen orders that all 94 of the captured defenders should be executed. One by one, each of these men are hung from the battlements over the castle walls. When the executions are complete, the bodies are cut down and lie in a heap in the ditch at the base of the castle walls. Brother Cadfael volunteers to lead a party of townsmen to retrieve the bodies and give them a decent Christian burial. King Stephen agrees, a heap of rotting corpses is a dangerous source of pestilence. But when Cadfael and his crew cart the perished men away, he finds that there a 95 dead men in the heap, though only 94 were executed. There is one corpse too many, and the monk intends to investigate and see that justice is done.

Other than the central mystery of "who is the ninety-fifth dead man, and why was he killed", there are several subplots. One involves the treasury of the castle - the wealth is missing, and King Stephen would certainly like to add its worth to his cause. Another subplot involves the two missing leaders of the defiant castle - where are Fulke Adney and William FitzAlan? Did they escape the siege and successfully slip away? Adney had a young daugher, Godric, and she too is missing. The King instructs his men to proceed with their searchs for the missing treasure and people. They must be hidden somewhere in the village of Shrewsbury.

Cadfael confronts King Stephen, telling him that the 95th man was murdered. King Stephen is enraged that a villain would use the King's Justice to cover up a foul murder, and he instructs Cadfael to investigate. Which of course Cadfael does.

What I liked about this novel is that it seems "authenticate". The people dress and act in ways that I imagine are how 12th century English actually behaved. The food they eat, the tools they wield - to this reader, it was a believable depiction of English life. Peters doesn't clutter her novel with info-dumps, but her descriptions include enough detail to make the picture seem true. This lends believability to the tale, which is a quick read. The paperback edition is just 215 pages.

I also enjoyed the characters in this book. Brother Cadfael is resourceful and clever, and has a strong moral purpose - he is determined to see justice done. The other characters are equally well drawn. This is just the second book in a long series, I don't know how many of these supporting character reappear in future volumes, but I hope to read a few more books and find out. I read A Morbid Taste for Bones many years ago, but I don't recall the story well enough to know if any of the characters from the first novel plays a part here in the second one. I hope that I can find a way to read volume three before too much longer.