Anyone who knows me will be surprised that I could be reduced to silence when on the subject of books; in fact on any subject. I was overcome with the inability to speak when I met the author of today’s book, Susanna Gregory. On one level I don’t understand it, she is not a fearsome lady, and I believe her murderous ideas are confined to fiction.What silenced me is the fact that I have enjoyed her books so much for so long that meeting her at a book signing a few years ago reduced me to silence, or at least a muttered “I so enjoy your books”
For this lady is responsible for many murders, in her books. The Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew, of which this book is the fifteenth, are all set in medieval Cambridge, among the hostels that eventually became the colleges which together make up the University. I started to read this series many years ago because of the Cambridge connection, as well as the similarity to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels which had come to an end with the author’s death. These Bartholomew books also feature a medical man within an ecclesiastical setting depending on brute force and herbal remedies, as well defending himself and his allies from near certain death at the hands of many baddies. This series is made up of bigger, more complex books in which there are more characters and probably more unexpected deaths. They are filled with “how will he get out of that?” moments which I always appreciate as Gregory certainly has a way with words and a great narrative drive. There are very few moments of idleness for the hapless Matthew and his friend Michael, the slightly overweight senior Proctor and Monk whose obsession with good food relieves many a tense situation. Yes, women are not leading characters here, which probably represents society at the time, but they are shown as variously evil, good, wise and cunning as any man. In fact, women are often the only ones who drive the story, the discoveries and the truth of what is going on while the male characters flail about helplessly.
The Fifteenth book in the series is A Vein of Deceit which went paperback last year.
(Another book has gone paperback within the last few days, The Killer of Pilgrims, but I haven’t tracked down a copy yet. Boo!)
This book like others begins in Cambridge but features a visit to another place, on this occasion, Suffolk. In fact I know the couple to whom this book is dedicated. The beginning is a bit graphic, as a woman dies as the result of taking the wrong herb while heavily pregnant. After that it becomes a novel of deceit, betrayal and uncertainly about who has done what, and to whom. It is a really good example of the series, as deaths, bodies and attempts on lives beset Matthew to the point of him not knowing who is left to trust. There are other books in this series which depict Cambridge as a small place closing in on the guilty and innocent alike. This book never dawdles and really doesn’t slow down between mystery and threat. The research is impeccable and never intrudes; I’ve rarely had to pause and wonder if it really could have happened like that in the period throughout all of the books. Gregory does not write in a dated theatrical language, however. It is easy to read speech and narration which do not require a working knowledge of medieval England to enjoy. There are landmarks and references to make the books solid such as the plague, which dominates some of the earlier books.
I would recommend these books to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries in an historical setting. They are unfailingly well written and enjoyable. Each one stands alone as a good book, as well as having some running themes. They don’t have to be read in strict order, although there is the danger that you may want to go back to read the earlier novels if you start later on. I have seen them reduced in some shops and websites, but they are definitely worth getting hold of and enjoying. Gregory also writes the Thomas Chaloner series, but they have not grabbed my attention in quite the same way. But there is still time, if only to fill the gaps while I await the next Bartholomew novel…