The novel begins in May 1137, and opens with Prior Robert of Shrewsbury Abbey determined that the abbey must have a saint’s relics. There isn’t a suitable saint nearby, so the Prior finds one in Wales.
Elsewhere, Brother Cadfael works in his herb garden with his two novice assistants: the practical and sensible John, whose commitment to the church Brother Cadfael questions, and the ambitious Columbanus, who has an illness that Brother Cadfael treats with poppy syrup, despite not believing that the illness is genuine.
Columbanus and Prior Robert’s clerk, Brother Jerome, go to North Wales, to Saint Winifred’s Well. Upon their return, Columbanus claims that Saint Winifred appeared to him and told him that her grave in Gwytherin was being neglected. In the vision, she explained that she wanted her remains moved to a place more accessible to pilgrims.
Abbot Heribert approves a trip to Wales to locate, remove, and relocate Saint Winifred’s remains. A party from the abbey including Prior Robert, Sub-Prior Richard, Brother Jerome, Columbanus, John, and Brother Cadfael leaves to retrieve the saint’s remains.
When the monks from the abbey arrive at Gwytherin, they discover that a local clergyman, Father Huw, will not allow the removal of the remains until he receives the approval of the free men of the church. The most influential landowner within the parish, Rhisiart, does not support the removal of the artifacts. Rhisiart leaves when Prior Robert offers him a bribe. With Father Huw’s support, Prior Robert requests another audience with Rhisiart, who agrees to take the meeting. At the time of the meeting, however, Rhisiart does not appear. Eventually, his body is found in the woods, his chest pierced, bearing the mark of Engelard, an Englishman who is in love with Rhisiart’s daughter, Sioned.
Prior Robert insists on Engelard’s arrest. Engelardruns off, with assistance from John. As a result, Prior Robert orders John’s arrest for impeding the law and for breaking his vow of obedience to his superiors. John offers no resistance, as his arrest means he’ll be held near the home of Annest, whom he loves.
Through some detective work, Brother Cadfael realizes that the arrow did not kill Rhisiart. Rhisiart’s back is wet, while his front is dry. In fact, Rhisiart was killed by a dagger to his back; after the attack, an arrow was pushed into his chest. The local citizens, who believe Rhisiart’s death to be some sort of ill omen, now agree to allow the removal of Winifred’s remains.
Prior Robert declares that, after a three-night vigil, Saint Winifred’s remains will be removed. Brother Cadfael quietly hopes for the truthfulness of an old superstition, that a murderer who touches his victim will make the corpse bleed, thus revealing the true villain. Sioned asks everyone keeping watch to touch the body after evening prayers, which Jerome does, and Prior Robert declines to do. On the third night of watch, Columbanus has a seizure which allows him to skip touching the body. After his recovery, Columbanus suggests that Rhisiart be placed in Saint Winifred’s grave.
Saint Winifred is removed from her grave, and placed in a coffin that is then sealed with wax. Rhisiart’s body is prepared for burial, and a new character,Peredur, reveals that he had found Rhisiart’s body and pushed the arrow into its chest so that Engelard would be removed as competition for Sioned.
Brother Cadfael discovers the poppy syrup bottle to be nearly empty, and deduces that Jerome could not have committed the murder. Before the party leaves, Columbanus keeps watch one more time, falls asleep, and has a vision of a woman imploring him to confess to the murder.
Columbanus confesses and begs forgiveness of the woman in the vision. He reaches out to touch her veil, only to discover his “vision” is actually Sioned. He slashes at her with a knife and runs away, suffering an accidental broken neck when Cadfael and Engelard pounce on him. Cadfael, Engelard, and Sioned undress the now-dead Columbanus and place his body in the coffin.
Prior Robert announces that Columbanus has had his prayers answered, and they all leave with the remains of Saint Winifred.
Two years later, Brother Cadfael learns that John and Annesthave married, as have Sioned and Engelard, who have named their first child after him.A Morbid Taste For Bones
is the first novel in a series of twenty books that feature Father Cadfael, collectively called “The Cadfael Chronicles.” Characters and settings that appear in this first book reappear in subsequent books, and Father Cadfael refers to the actions of previous books throughout the series.A Morbid Taste for Bones
is recognized as an excellent crime story, and was placed on a list of the top 100 crime novels by the Crime Writers Association.