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.

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!