Murder by the Book by Susanna Gregory

14 August, 2012

The publication of a new book in Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series is an event I look forward to every year. There is something really likeable about Matthew Bartholomew: his intense belief in his ability as a physician in 14th century England despite accusations of sorcery and heresy from his peers; his conflicting feelings for the love of his life, the beautiful, erudite, ex-lady of the night Matilde, whom he has let slip through his fingers; his close relationship with his family; and, of course, his friendship with Michael, Benedictine monk and Proctor of Cambridge University. Murder By The Book is Bartholomew’s 18th adventure in a Cambridge still gripped with fear after the devastation strewn by the Black Plague that had taken so many lives only a few years back. The characters that people Bartholomew’s college, Michaelhouse, and all the others in Cambridge are familiar and although there are always new characters sliding in and out of the stories, Gregory’s ability at bringing 14th century Cambridge to life as a vibrant, smelly and deadly place is a real treat to read.

In Murder by the Book, the university is in an uproar as a much-coveted building has been designated the new university library. The Fellows are up in arms with each other as the respective colleges feel they have been robbed of the potential income from the building as well as having to share their highly prized books (often kept chained) with others. In the middle of this is Bartholomew who, against the wishes of Brother Michael, has voted for the library believing it can only do the academic fraternity good. However disaster strikes almost immediately in a near-fatal collision between a Fellow and a heavy book as the meeting gets heated. And when four bodies are found in the stagnant pond in the premises of the new library, Bartholomew and Michael are in a race against time to find the killer before the body count rises.

Michael’s formidable aunt, Dame Pelagia, is also in town looking for a French spy and when Bartholomew is assaulted for his knowledge of the secret ingredients for wildfire, things get deadly. Dame Pelagia is a fascinating figure. As well as being the aunt of one of my favourite characters in this series, she is a spritely 70 year old and a former royal spy. The legacy of the Battle of Poitiers also lies heavily across this tale and the betrayals and race for deadlier weapons is something that echoes the modern world. As well as Bartholomew’s views on medicine, his experiences as a reluctant soldier and the persistent trauma of war provide some of the more meatier substance to Gregory’s novel.

One of the things I didn’t like about this book is Bartholomew’s interest in a new lady. I still want him to end up with Matilde and keep reading this series hoping he finds her again.

This is another enjoyable romp through history and more poignant than puzzling. Although I sometimes feel that Gregory’s characterisation is leaning towards stereotypes, partly because there are so many characters, many of whom are real figures from that period, it doesn’t spoil the reading experience for me and I’m looking forward to the next in the series.

So, have you tried Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series? And if you do decide to, do read from the first volume in this series, A Plague on Both Your Houses.

I would like to thank Little, Brown for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

4 Responses to “Murder by the Book by Susanna Gregory”

  1. aartichapati Says:

    Oh, someone told me about this series years ago and I always confuse it with the Brother Cadfael ones. But this seems much more up my alley!

  2. Mystica Says:

    New one for me. I like the sound of A Plague on both your Houses

  3. I’ve not read any of this series, but I did enjoy the Cadfael books I’ve read, so I should really investigate these. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. Chinoiseries Says:

    I haven’t read any medieval crime mysteries yet, so I’m definitely adding the first book of this series to my to-read list. How does she keep this series (of 18 books!) engaging? Is it because of her many characters?

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