Murder on High Holborn – Susanna Gregory

There has been a bit of a gap in posts as we have been on holiday/annual book buying tour. Apart from the predictable places (Heffers in Cambridge, Persephone in Bloomsbury, second hand bookshops everywhere) we also found in the depths of Shropshire a Guildhall opened as an honesty bookshop full (yes, as in a room full) of second hand books for the choosing. One box full later (with a suitable donation, honest!) the car looked less like a car for luggage and more than a travelling bookshop. So nothing new there then…

One of the side effects of this travelling is the opportunity to listen to an audiobook. On thirteen discs we listened to Murder on High Holborn by Susanna Gregory. On this blog I have written often about Gregory’s other series, the Matthew Bartholmew books set in fourteenth century Cambridge, and I have been eagerly reading each book as they have come out in hardback from the library. The Thomas Chaloner series, set in Restoration London, have largely passed me by; I read the first when they started to come out and I went to an author event where they were launched – in 2006! I picked up the paperbacks more or less as they came out, but never really read them. I think that, having listened to this, I will change that…

In this episode of the ongoing adventures of Thomas, (possible spoiler alert, I’m not sure how much this reveals of the previous books), Chaloner is charged with trying to discover what is going on with a proposed plot to overthrow the King (Charles II) and government, and usher in the final millennium. Alongside this, he has to find the murderer of a courtier in a brothel and why the ship London has sunk with all hands in a peaceful stretch of river.

On a more mundane level his wife is spending freely and London is beset by rain and mud. There is adventure, more death and much running around London and its environs. There is comedy, as one of the characters goes by the name of Consti Pate. The other characters, including a drunken Admiral, Prince Rupert and spies of varying degrees of ineptitude have all got their own agendas, and many of them are willing to kill to achieve their aims. The pace of this novel is fast, to reflect the relentless nature of Chaloner’s many tasks and investigations, but he does get time to sleep and eat. This is not a seventeenth century 24, and there is enormous detail in the modes of travelling, clothing, weaponry and life generally. As in Gregory’s other series of books, there are many “how will he get out of this?” moments and generally given the high body count this is a good novel. There are few female characters, and I must admit I got some of the men muddled up in my mind. It is an historical murder mystery, thriller, and therefore perhaps not for everyone, but I enjoyed it. (As did Husband, as he dealt with yet another lot of road works). It would not be necessary to have read the other books in the series to enjoy this, but it would help to understand the setting. Medicine is a bit primitive, and there is a real fear of the supernatural as worked on by several characters. I can certainly recommend this book for as an historical adventure with great characters. I think that I will still prefer the Matthew B. series, but these books will certainly fill the year gaps between each episode of that series.

A Poisonous Plot by Susanna Gregory

Twenty one already! No, not my age ( I am  little past that…) but the twenty first chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew.

Susanna Gregory has written twenty previous books about the fourteenth century doctor, Matthew Bartholomew. He is a Fellow of Michaelhouse College in Cambridge. What makes this series interesting is that if there is a murder, untimely death or serious crime in the town, Matthew gets dragged into it by his friend, Brother Michael, who by this stage is Senior Proctor of the University. Town and gown battle it out between them as vested interests, local politics and strange personalities confuse the issue of detecting and preventing crime local before police, detectives and even detailed examination of victims are established.

While I can appreciate that not everyone is a medieval history fan, it is not necessary to even know who is on the throne to understand and enjoy this series of books. The personalities  and situation are far more than historic, and the language is flowing and easy to follow. There are many impossible – to –  escape –  from adventures, and many of the books see the characters leaving Cambridge for other interesting towns and cities such as York and Lincoln. It is a male dominated book, which reflects the time period, but often the female characters have far more clue than the hapless Matthew and Michael.

A Poisonous Plot is concerned with the mysterious deaths of several villagers, town notables and University fellows, against a background of controversial dyeworks and even a proposed exodus of the colleges from Cambridge.

It is a good example of the series so far, with many threatened riots and local skirmishes as a result of a fatal illness which seems to afflict the rich and leave the poor unaffected. Matthew is on good form, not distracted by his frustrated love life, as he chases around  trying to work out if Cew is really mad, his book bearer’s superstition is going to be fulfilled, and the frail sisters’ new enterprise is really replacing their original “profession”. Brother Michael is still overindulging, while being the only person who can suppress the simmering town.  My favourite eccentric  character, Clippesby, is still consulting the local wildlife to find out clues, while the wild son of the Sheriff, Dickon, is experimenting with further and better weaponry.

This is a good stand alone novel, with enough information for the first time reader of Gregory’s books to work out what is going on, though if you have read earlier episodes you will get more of the in jokes. It is a funny book, but it is essentially a murder mystery in a well established context.  Husband has enjoyed various books in the series, and would recommend them too. This book has only just come out in hard back, but the other twenty are to be found in various places, and in audio form. Give one (or twenty!) a try!

Happy Book Day! (And St. David’s Day, of course) And another Gregory novel

Happy World Book Day… or whatever it’s called. Happy St. David’s Day as well.

Here in Northernreader towers I’m still coasting along in a post – essay reading bubble. Two Carola Dunn murder mysteries have been consumed, as well as today’s book, The Mystery in the Minster, the Seventeenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, by Susanna Gregory.

I’ve posted before about my love of historical mysteries, and Susanna Gregory’s books in particular. I find her other series a bit tougher -( I think that the Thomas Chaloner books are a little stronger and more like C. J. Sansom.  Not that they are less well written at all, but somehow much more grim)

I usually wait for each of these books to go paperback and then buy them to read. I did see this one in hardback in my wonderful local library, so I thought that I would read it now then look for a cheap copy at some time to complete my set. And I couldn’t wait to read the next installment…

This book sees Matthew, Michael and assorted others travel from medieval Cambridge to York in search of an inheritance promised to the College. There is soon murder done, but not before we encounter some mincing priests with a shoe fetish, (Sex in the medieval City?)  a rather racy nun and a feminist theologian. There are the usual skirmishes, death defying escapes, fights and general hunting for guilty parties (with some light pathology thrown in for the really ghoulish). Fans of Dorothy Sayers will recognise the sense of impending doom as a flood threatens to overwhelm the city, obscure any clues and threaten the righteous and the downright murderous alike.

Although set in a different place from most of the series, like the episode set in Lincoln this is a faithful representation of a city and buildings that survive until today. I enjoyed this book. I know know the characters well enough that I know what to expect, although I am sure that if you had not read any of the earlier books you would still enjoy this one. There are a lot of names to remember, and a little technical stuff about churches, prayers for the dead and wills.It is the sort of book that you can coast along on the general flow, without worrying about every detail. There are some classic moments here as the heroes throw themselves into the hunt for miscreants and documents, with plenty of ‘how will they get out of this?’ moments.

In short, if you like historical murder mysteries this is great. If you are addicted to Susanna Gregory books as I am, this is a really good episode in the ongoing series. Longer than Ellis Peters’ classics, less disciplined and with a wider scope, it is a good book.

Two series of books – both with their funny moments

You may have noticed from this blog that I am quite fond of reading series of books. I suppose there is a form of security in reading about familiar characters, often in familiar contexts. Anyone who knows the smallest thing about the Harry Potter series will soon realise that Hogwarts School is a character in its own right, and that the setting is part of the charm of the books. I suppose it rather goes to the main point of why we read what we read. Do we read the Austens, Wodehouses, Heyers (my particular vices) because they feel comfortable, safe and we know what to expect? Or are we happier to read new things, new authors in search of new ideas, characters and situations?

Which is a long winded way of saying that I have re read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Book 1)

What can anyone say about this book. The readers did grow up with this series; this book is a basically simple tale for children, with goodies and baddies, clearly drawn characters, carefully explained events. It does start the whole ball rolling, sets off lots of trails, and establishes the series brilliantly. I am half way through The Chamber of Secrets.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2)

I’m not sure that it is such a good book as the first, and it hasn’t got the relative sophistication of the later books. It does move the story on, and does have the wonderful Gilderoy Lockhart. Perhaps I could have spent the time reading a new book, but one of the joys of reading this series is spotting things that you missed in the rush to discover what happened, especially as the films either stuck closely to the books, or were forced to leave out large chunks.  At least we have many copies of these books…

The other series is nowhere near as well known, but a lot more adult. I have written about Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew Series before, and now I have read the latest to go paperback, number sixteen.

The Killer of Pilgrims is quite simply, brilliant. It is firmly set in Cambridge, features bitterly held grudges, clever tricks, the hapless Mathew being chased by a romantically inclined female and many murders. The beginning emphasises the importance in the fourteenth century of pilgrims badges to show that someone has made a challenging journey. This book also describes campball games, huge, dangerous ball games featuring large teams set on getting the ball at whatever the cost, including physical damage. A quick check on a certain online encyclopedia reveals just how dangerous a game this was, played between neighbouring parishes or similar groups, and having few if any rules. This novel makes particular use of two games to increase the levels of physical danger and tension between different groups. There is also a fearsome matriarch, a woman who “oozes” towards Matthew, as well as the college going through the usual food shortages and leaky buildings. This is just such a good episode in the series. I think that it probably stands alone as a novel,  as a medieval murder mystery, but if it is the first you read in the series, you will want to find the others.  I haven’t re read these books, partly because they are quite big, but I have kept them all, if only so I can go back and see how the series develops. Has anyone else got favourite series of books?

A Vein of Deceit – and leaving me speechless

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…