If there is a defining moment for the Cadfael mysteries, it may come in the Monk's Hood episode when the canny sleuth Brother Cadfael brings shocking news to the family of a healthy man who had suddenly collapsed and died at his dinner table. "This is no ordinary death," says Cadfael. "Master Bonell died of poison, taken in food recently eaten."
He doesn't reach that conclusion by peeking over the shoulder of the forensic pathologist assigned to the case nor by quickly scanning the results of toxicology tests. They didn't have those in the 12th century. He figures it out by sniffing the distinctive aroma of an oily toxin around the dead man's mouth, by observing the staining of his lips, and by listening to witnesses' descriptions of the dying man's agonizing symptoms.
In the village of Shrewsbury, England, circa A.D. 1140 or so, Brother Cadfael functions principally as a medicine man who runs his own apothecary shop, cultivating the plants and herbs from which he makes medicines himself. But his job doesn't end there. He's Quincy, M. E., in a cowl, a kind of two-fisted Father Brown with carnal knowledge. He's what Sherlock Holmes might have been if born 750 years earlier and bottle-fed on a good deal more of the milk of human kindness than Conan Doyle ever gave him.
In fact, one can imagine Holmes learning a great deal at Brother Cadfael's side. In The Sanctuary Sparrow, for instance, Cadfael carefully extracts three different specimens of herbs from the clogged nostrils and bloated lips of a corpse recently fished from a nearby stream. Find the place where these rare plants grow together, he avows, and you will know where the murder was committed.
Cadfael is a Welshman who took up the sword in the First Crusade and fought his way to Jerusalem and back. He has seen and done it all before deciding, at age 40, to devote the rest of his life to God's work. He hopes he might make a start at cleansing the bloody stains off his immortal soul by joining an order of Benedictine monks at the Abbey of St. Peter and Paul. While atoning for his sins, he also becomes England's first master detective.
The preceding is an excerpt taken from the book,
MYSTERY!: A Celebration, by Ron Miller
(published by KQED Books).
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