The Habit of Murder by Susanna Gregory – or a tale of a small Suffolk town

The fact that this is the “Twenty – Third Chronicle of Matthew Bartholmew” may be a little off putting if you have no idea who Matthew is, or where or when this “chronicle” is set. Or you may be a devotee of these books, who has obviously been eagerly waiting for each new episode to emerge either in hardback or paperback at the rate of one per year. Either way, this book is undoubtedly a treat, and as I am definitely in the second group (so bad I buy the new hardback) I can only assume but fairly believe that even if you are new to these books, you will still find much to enjoy in the latest adventures of Matthew Bartholomew, physician in fourteenth century  Cambridge. Together with his great friend, Brother Michael, and in this book, Master Langlee, they have yet another murder or two to solve, and as usual find themselves in enormous danger while doing so.

This adventure takes place in the lovely and wealthy (to this day) Clare in Suffolk. Matthew, Michael and Langlee travel to the small town in the hope of getting more funding for their college, Michaelhouse, in Cambridge. They travel with other representatives of various colleges to attend the funeral of noted benefactor, Elizabeth de Burgh, and discover a remarkable state of affairs. The castle and household of Lady de Burgh is in a state of constant tension with the townspeople, often over the parish church which is a show piece of new and challenging architecture. When one of the travellers and a much loved inhabitant of the castle are found dead, suspicions, rumours and really dangerous situations occur, when no one seems innocent and suspicious deaths are recalled. Relations between town and castle deteriorate and in the midst of danger and distrust Matthew and Michael undertake to solve the murders. This is not a bleak story however, as much humour emerges as they meet an enclosed anchorite who is more sociable than those in the outside world, a hermit who enjoys shopping trips, and a gang of young men who follow outrageous fashions at all costs. There is also a group of monks who were soldiers before taking their vows, and who therefore take the role of peacekeepers and great drinkers.  As usual, Matthew finds himself in danger while trying to bring the killers to justice, see the sights of a beautiful town and raise funds for his desperately poor college.  Michael asserts his natural authority, while Langlee finds some old drinking friends.

This is a brilliant addition to the series of books, which are frequently but not exclusively set in Cambridge. Clare is a tourist attraction to this day, and it is fascinating to read a book where real characters in the town’s history are liberally brought to life. The style of writing is as ever funny, intriguing and draws the reader into situations where impeccable research into clothes, medical matters and religious observance are skilfully absorbed into the story. The characters are consistent and although there is murder and sudden death throughout, there is no gratuitous violence. Fear, suspicion and jealousy abound, but there are also ridiculous characters whose naivety and ineptitude in preparing for war or discovering the really guilty is staggering.  There are also disturbing concepts, such as the treatment of women and what they have to resort to doing in desperate circumstances, but these are dealt with in a sensitive manner and eventual justice emerges. This is a splendid book for all lovers of historical fiction with a murder mystery theme, and would probably work as a stand- alone novel for new readers to Gregory’s series.

When we lived in Suffolk we frequently visited Clare, which is a lovely little town with some superb examples of pargeting, which is a decorative tradition in which patterns and simple pictures are made in the wall plaster of various buildings. If you are ever in the area, do take a trip there, as there is a large park with a railway station in the middle, as well as lots of little shops to explore.