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When the Abbey receives a gift of a field, the last thing the monks expected was to find the body of a woman buried in it, particularly as she had been buried unblessed. The obvious explanation is that the body is that of Generys, the wife of Ruald, who left his wife to answer holy orders and who used to lease the field. But then Sulien Blount turns up, claiming that he can prove Generys is still alive. Can Cadfael put aside his work with medicinal herbs to investigate how the woman died? And what role did a tramp staying in Ruald's former cottage have in the murder?
This is the seventeenth book in the Brother Cadfael series and is set in Shropshire in 1843. Sadly, Ellis Peters wasn't to write many more books in the series, because she died in 1995. Although her real name is Edith Pargeter, she is probably best known as Ellis Peters, the name under which the Brother Cadfael series is written. Beautifully researched, the series covers the period between 1135 and 1145, during which war waged between King Stephen and Empress Maud.
Brother Cadfael is a monk at Shrewsbury Abbey, where he is a herbalist. He was not always a monk though; he first went overseas on the First Crusade and so knows much more about human nature than does the average, closeted monk. As such, he makes a superb detective, and has often used his investigative skills to solve crimes in the district, aided by local Sheriff, Hugh Beringar. This understanding of human nature makes Cadfael very likeable as a character; he is not quite as judgemental as otherwise might be expected - being not easily shocked by the mistakes that human beings tend to make.
Cadfael has been televised, with Derek Jacobi in the role of the lead character. It is thus fitting that Derek Jacobi should be tasked with providing the reading voice for the audio book. Jacobi has the perfect voice for a religious man - it is soothing, calm and smooth and fits my idea of Cadfael exactly. Jacobi's voice does change slightly when he is reading the speech of other characters in the book - for example, it deepens when reading what Hugh Beringar says and goes higher when he is reading the part of a woman - but on the whole, his voice doesn't differ as much as that of some other readers of audio books, for example Hugh Fraser and Martin Jarvis. This isn't a major problem, except that his voice can sometimes be a bit monotonous and when I listen to the book before going to bed, I often find I'm asleep long before the side has finished!
My main problem with this particular story is that it is the seventeenth in the series and I have found that the further on in the series, the more tired the stories become. I have listened to this tape at least five times now, but still find that each time I listen, I can't remember having heard it before - or else I can't distinguish it from the others in the series that I have read. I do find it very calming, but there certainly isn't any of the excitement that I have come to expect when reading works of crime fiction. Jacobi's voice, which begins to drone after a while, doesn't help with this. The story isn't all bad though. The ending is quite an unexpected one and although not exactly exciting, it did keep me awake for long enough to hear it.
Although the story is the seventeenth in the series, there isn't really any need to have read any of the others before embarking on this one - each book is a stand-alone story and it is easy to pick up the threads of Cadfael's life and background.
The story lasts for three hours over two audio cassettes. This is abridged from the original version. However, I can't help but think it would have been better if they'd knocked another half an hour or so off the story, probably from somewhere in the middle when I started to get a bit restless. I don't know why it should be, but listening to a story rather than reading it can get quite wearing after a while and on more than one occasion, I found myself longing for the story to get a move on.
This version of the audio cassette is currently available from Amazon for £7.69. There is another version available, narrated by Stephen Thorne, but as it is even longer than this one and a lot more expensive, I really don't recommend it. Personally, I don't recommend any version of this audio book, abridged or not - in this case, I think there is much more to be got out of reading the book rather than listening to it.
The woman in the grave had been buried in secrecy, unblessed, the crude cross her hands clasped made from hedgerow twigs. But who is she? Brother Cadfael sets about investigating.