Murder by the Book by Susanna Gregory
Review by Mark
Matt and Michael are back in a tale that continues the theme of Anglo-French scheming on a grand scale. For the first time, Gregory moves us into a period directly connected to the Battle of Poitiers in 1346 by giving us a concise description of the battle, the capture of King Jean, and the vows of Sire de Rouge before driving us firmly back to Cambridge two years later where Tynkell has decided to meddle in town/scholar affairs by encouraging the rich Dunning to build a Common Library using the architectural fervour of Walkelate. We open with a furious convocation; a narrow passing of a positive vote for the library on the site of Newe Inn. Trouble is half the scholars are vehemently against it because they know it might dry up their source of books – a measure of wealth for them – and the Carmelites and Batayl Hostel believe the site of the new building was promised to them.
Michael is rightly alarmed when the leader of Batayl, Cosalaye, is brained in the opening pages and the grand opening to celebrate Corpus Christi is announced. Trouble is coming at high speed and he’s no Junior Proctor to help him when Cambridge is beset by robbers and smugglers.
The action steps up a notch in this latest installment. We have a co-ordinated raid on the Castle where the Kings Taxes are being nervously kept by Sherriff Tulyet; a rush of desire for Cambridge scholars to become inventors en masse; an unhealthy interest in the wildfire that Matt and the other Medicus inadvertently created in the previous novel; Dame Pelagia haunting dark alleys in a sprightly manner; the rumour-spreading Weasenham and his book and paper producing shops; the new surgeon in town – Holm – a man whose hair shines more brightly than his talent in Matt’s opinion; Dunning’s beautiful daughter Julitta who may replace Mathilde in Matt’s affections but is betrothed to Holm; and lastly, Langelee is behaving most oddly indeed.
As with all Gregory’s recent Bartholomew novels the body count climbs rapidly and those that know her books well will instinctively realise there are multiple plots and motives which have commonality of place but not necessarily purpose. Those that die quickly in the novel all show an unhealthy infatuation with alchemy, all are either for or against the Common Library and end up meeting their demise in or near the library itself.
Fighting occupies a larger part of the action in this novel. Matt is attacked several times, the denoument ends up in a conflgration similar to “The Killer of Pilgrims” (if I recall that ending correctly), there are two major battles in the town, and, of course, we open with the Battle of Poitiers where it seemed more of Cambridge’s scholastic profession were on either the English or French side than we previously knew.
Couple of small technical errors on the Kindle (one day I will check to see if these are copied to the paper versions). We get “Ayce had been given his just deserts” (page 205, location 3565) and an immediate repetition in following paragraph of the sentence “before Bartholomew could point out siding with the French at Poitiers had hardly been an act of patriotism” (page 402, location 7065).
By the end Michael and Matt help stave off the disaster of a planned raid, confront the villains in the library, save England from French military aims and end up needing a good break before their next sleuthing mission. Gregory has widened the scope of her two medieval sleuths in the past three or four novels. Their stage increasingly encroaches on geo-political themes of the times, the enemies they come up against having bigger motives than those contained with the personal microcosm of a flourishing town. I’d like to see Matt and Michael take a trip to Oxford, do a bit of ‘Morse and Lewis’, have Matt resolve the Mathilde issue. But for all that, I remain convinced that Gregory is the finest medieval mystery writer in Britain. At the risk of rousing the ire of Ellis Peters’ fans, I think she is better at plot, characterisation, and painstaking detail of period – the Historical Note in each installment is a delight to read as we realise all these characters are drawn from real people, that real events occurred which Gregory uses to create her plots. I can honestly say I am delighted I found Gregory’s books over a decade ago and both her series are a joy I never tire of indulging in.
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