I'm on a bit of a monastic kick this year. Crime-solving monks are really inexpressibly delightful, and while William of Baskerville may have been the most prescient, Brother Cadfael is the most relatable and charming.
While I didn't enjoy One Corpse Too Many as much as the first book in the series, A Morbid Taste for Bones, it certainly still got me through a reading slump. I find monkish murder mysteries to be a comfort read, as they're generally quick, have fun historical details, and everyone has a secret. Why else would they have become monks?
One Corpse Too Many takes place during one of England's many civil wars/upheavals/messy claims to the throne. My post-William the Conqueror knowledge of English history is hairy at best, mostly because I was a French major and as soon as good ol' Guillaume left the continent, we left him and his descendants to putter about until the Hundred Years War a few centuries later. But that doesn't mean that the invaded Anglo-Saxons (who in turn had invaded the Roman Britons, Picts, and other tribes) were just sitting on their thumbs. Or biting them.
As with any successional mode of rulership, dying without a clear heir tends to produce problems. In the olden days, the best way of solving familial disputes was to go to war, not family counseling. Henry I of England, one of William's sons, died without a direct heir but named his daughter, Matilda or Maude or Maud (depending), as his heir. She was already married to the Holy Roman Emperor, but as usual, the local barons in England did not want this "foreign lady" who was married to a German to come back and rule England (although later, the Germans would end up ruling England anyway, so all this fighting was quite unnecessary). Stephen, her cousin, claimed the throne and they had a spat called the Anarchy, which is just a polite way of saying war. There were invasions and captures. Eventually, Maud (as she is referred to in this particular book) lost and got sent back to France, but ha ha ha! Her son, Henry II (husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, stuck her in a tower) became king of England anyway. Tee-hee Stephen!
But at the time of the book's action, none of this had really happened yet. Stephen and Maud were gathering supporters on either side and hiring out mercenaries and conscripting barons and stealing people's food, as one did in times of war in the Middle Ages.
King Stephen has made it as far as Shrewsbury, where Brother Cadfael lives. After much hacking apart of people and a mass execution, the populace is notably subdued. Local nobles have fled, and Stephen wants them--or at least, their money. One such noble hid his daughter, disguised as a boy, in the monastery, where she becomes Cadfael's assistant. Cadfael, being a super-awesome ex-Crusader, keeps her secret and protects her. He's not political--in fact, in this story, he helps two couples get engaged and they're on opposite sides!--but he is compassionate and has seen enough killing. Although that doesn't stop him from carrying a large dagger around inside of his habit.
The titular extra corpse is found by Cadfael as he and others from the monastery prepare the executed soldiers' bodies for a Christian burial. A mysterious man was killed with a garrote, not hanged with a rope, and tossed in the pile of bodies to hide the evidence. Who is the killer? Why was the mysterious man killed?
Hmm. Looking back at this review, I spent much more time enthusiastically chatting about post-Norman invasion England than, you know, the actual book. It's rather short but loads of fun, and Cadfael is the kind of person you can't help but like. This is such a charming series--may I call it charming if it deals with lots of dead people?--and I am ready to snag the next when when I need a bookish pick-me-up.