A Poisonous Plot by Susanna Gregory

Rating 9.0/10
A historical murder that is confounding, intellectual and meticulously constructed.

“You are about to deliver news of an untimely death. Not to mention the fact that the town is on the verge of a riot, you have a murder to solve, and there is a bonfire next to our church that may set it alight at any moment.”

Matt and Michael are back in their twenty-first adventure. This time the author’s body count excels her usual quota with twenty-five corpses littering the pages for our charismatic, erudite Corpse Examiner and his Senior Proctor to puzzle over. The title of the book gives away the primary means of death, but the mystery is what the poison is and how it’s getting into the rich of Cambridge. What with Edith’s new dye works as a means of respectable income for the Frail Sisters, the town’s profitable brewery run by Shirwynk and his son, Peyn, the illicit flooding of foodstuffs with the high-taxed sucura, and the ever present miasmas of the King’s Ditch then it is no wonder that the new medicus in town – Nigellus de Thornton – has leapt upon the chance to claim it is a new debilitas and charge extortionate fees for false horoscopes to cure every one.

Unfortunately, his panacea is sadly lacking and the finger of suspicion is pointed at all and sundry to settle personal scores encouraged by the lawyer, Stephen; loudly voiced by everyone meaning Gregory’s common theme of scholars v towns people threatens, yet again, to plunge Cambridge into riotous disorder during the normally indulgent time of Hallow-tide.

Michaelhouse is hard pressed. Its constant lack of income has led Langelee to commission an ill-advised fresco from the Austin Priority led by Prior Joliet and Almoner Robert. There is a new fellow – Wauter – who has come from the Hostel of Zachary. Zachary is a place of hotheads, led by the mild-mannered Irby, but controlled by the feisty Franciscan Kellawe, dull Segeforde, unpleasant Yerland and asinine Morys.  Couple this with the opening pages murder of Frenge at the Austin Priory with claims that King’s Hall did it, various assaults, licences to absolve parties from misdeeds and a load of false rumours – all of which is twisted into a fuse then lit by a nefarious “strategist” – you can see how both Matt and Michael are plunged into a desperate race against time to prevent conflagration. It’s a race Matt is loath to start but Michael rightly brushes his protests aside by confirming that

“you always object to lending a hand but we both know you will do it in the end. We go through the same charade every time there is a suspicious death.”

Without giving away any of the machinations of plot and action you can rely on Gregory to provide a historical murder that is both confounding, pleasing, intellectual, convoluted yet meticulously constructed, and a darn good read. There are a couple of tiny errata: the Kindle has ‘deserts’ rather than ‘desserts’, the literary reference to a ‘mortal coil’ predates its origin use by a hundred and fifty or so years. It is my opinion that Gregory is the finest living historical murder mystery author. It is our pleasure we have thirty or so novels to read already and more flowing from her prolific plume. There’s a nice sign off to this one: honest, accurate, and, above all…humorous

“’Then why do I feel as though we are not welcome?’ asked Michael.

‘Because you are arrogant, miserly and condescending; you make nuisances of yourselves with our womenfolk; and you do not pay fair prices for our goods. You belittle and cheat us at every turn, and you are rarely good neighbours.”

‘Well, yes,’ acknowledged Michael. ‘But we cannot help that.’”

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