A Vein of Deceit by Susanna Gregory
25 September, 2009
This is my fourth title for the R.I.P. IV Challenge hosted by Stainless Steel Droppings. Although this title may not be as darkly gothic as some of the others on the list and includes splashes of humour, nevertheless it’s a mystery and explores the darker side of human nature.
A Vein of Deceit is the fifteenth chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, physician and Fellow of Michaelhouse College who together with his friend and colleague Brother Michael, Benedictine monk and Senior Proctor, become embroiled in and solve murders whilst unravelling dastardly deeds in medieval Cambridge. Susanna Gregory’s research and her interesting characters always make for entertaining reading. As well as getting a thrill from the mystery itself, you find yourself immersed in medieval life.
I’ve been a fan for many years and find the characters evolving as the years pass, relationships deepening, new friendships forged and love lost. Except for Matthew Bartholomew, Gregory bases most of her characters on real historical figures and events occurring in Cambridge during that period. Her choice of the fourteenth century is pertinent as it places Bartholomew right in the middle of the Black Death, which decimated the town of Cambridge, and its aftermath in which there was a severe shortage of physicians.
Matthew Bartholomew is an unconventional physician in medieval England, having studied in France under his Arab teacher whose methods are a little more modern than those taught by classical teachers. This often gets him into arguments with other physicians (for example regarding the efficacy of astrological charts versus washing hands in keeping patients alive – this always makes me snort in laughter, even though I know how serious a science astrology was in the medieval world). Amongst the more mysterious elements of the story, Gregory drops nuggets of information about medieval England and the history of medicine which blend seemlessly into the story.
A Vein of Deceit begins with a vicious attack on the Master of Michaelhouse, a suspicious death of a pregnant lady and a missing Michaelhouse student. The Cambridge colleges are under siege by a ruthless brother and sister who cannot by arrested, and Michaelhouse’s college accountant dies exposing a serious lack of funds. Mix in a debate about blood relics, medieval football (camp-ball) and discovery of coal nearby and you get a brilliant tale. Although I seem to have emphasized the historical aspect of this novel, this is foremost a mystery with some truly terrifying villains.
Although you can read the books separately, I feel that you would get a richer understanding of the characters and the period if you start with the first volume, A Plague on Both Your Houses.
Gregory also writes the Thomas Chaloner series starting with A Conspiracy of Violence set in restoration London and the Sir Geoffrey Mappestone series starting with Murder in the Holy See under the nom de plume Simon Beaufort (an interesting link can be found here).