British author Edith Pargeter, who also wrote under the psuedonym Ellis Peters, does a masterly bit of work in the second novel of her fine Cadfael Chronicles. That book, One Corpse Too Many, is set in 1138 England and includes a scene pivotal to the plot of the story, but also meaningful for its glimpse into human tragedy. Following the hanging of more than 90 men who were in rebellion against King Stephen, the families of the fallen come to claim their bodies for burial. It’s quiet and sad:
Some dozen or so had been claimed by parents and wives. Soon there would be piteous little hand-carts pushed up the slope to the gate, and brothers and neighbors lifting limp bodies to carry them away. More of the townspeople were still coming timidly in through the archway, women with shawls drawn close over their heads and faces half-hidden, gaunt old men trudging resignedly to look for their sons.
Among the men hung by the orders of the king, is one murdered and then thrown in among the other dead and it falls to the series’ hero Brother Cadfael to both discern that one corpse is not like the others and then to discover the killer.
I found myself moved by the small detail of a horror of war — the trauma of reclaiming the dead — and impressed that this scene was also pivotal to the development of the plot.
I’ve been enjoying Pargeter’s Cadfael Chronicles, impressed with her diligence in creating a believable historical setting but also with her skill in building a compelling narrative. It’s one thing when a scene evokes deep emotion. It’s a mark of expertise when it serves the plot so well.