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.

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Susanna Gregory’s 17th foray into historical crime featuring the physician Matthew Bartholomew, Mystery in the Minster, takes the 14th century sleuth away from Cambridge and Michaelhouse College to York before term begins to settle a disputed legacy. Together with Cynric, his loyal Welsh servant, Michaelhouse’s Master Langelee, Brother Michael, a Benedictine and Senior Proctor of Cambridge, and Radeford, a lawyer, Bartholomew must delve into the mysterious deaths that have dogged a missing codicil granting Michaelhouse the church and living of Huntingdon from Langelee’s former master William Zouche, the Archbishop of York.

Before becoming the Master of Michaelhouse College in Cambridge, Ralph Langelee was a trusted servant of Zouche, working with him to ensure peace and stability in York during a time of strife and the ever present danger of French attacks. Langelee is tight-lipped about what this work entailed but what isn’t disputed is Langelee’s affection for his former boss and his sorrow that Zouche’s last wish, that a chapel be built for him to atone for his sins, hasn’t been completed even after nine years. The money has disappeared together with the codicil bequeathing Michaelhouse the parish of Huntingdon and, on top of that, Zouche’s closest advisors have started to die. The Michaelhouse men must use their wits against the vicars choral who are hellbent on keeping Huntingdon for themselves and there is the danger of being accused as French spies. Bartholomew has his work cut out as he uses his medical knowledge to see whether murder has been committed, keeps his friends out of harm’s way and their purity intact against Zouche’s beautiful nieces and watch out for mischief from the vicars choral who seem oddly obsessed with shoes. Will Michaelhouse get Huntingdon? And more importantly, will they survive York?

Once again, Gregory brings 14th century England to life; this time it is the great city of York instead of Cambridge. Although Bartholomew is well travelled and was trained in Paris, he is struck by the cosmopolitan nature of York, its magnificent Minster, its great hospital that takes the issue of hygiene seriously (a rare occurrence even after the Black Death) and the necessity for hats (to protect the head from unwelcome fluids being thrown out of windows.) One of the new things I learnt in this volume was the existence of the vicars choral, lay members of the community who look after the choral duties of the busier church canons, who seem to have wielded much power in medieval York.

I’m a huge fan of Matthew Bartholomew and his coterie of eccentric Michaelhouse Fellows and although the mystery isn’t as taxing and some of the characters may lack subtlety, Gregory’s novels give a welcome glimpse into a violent, dirty, smelly and yet fascinating period in English history. More please!

There is only one issue that has been bugging me in the last few books and that is, where is Mathilde? She’s one of my favourite characters after Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael (of course) and I miss her!

I recommend reading these mysteries in order so that you don’t miss out on the everchanging friendships and relationships that make this series so wonderful. Begin with A Plague on Both Your Houses.

I would like to thank the lovely people at Little, Brown Book Group for kindly sending me a copy of this book to review.

I read this as part of the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

As a long-time fan of Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series, I always look forward to reading each new book as though I’m greeting old friends. Does that make me weird? Of course it doesn’t! The Killer of Pilgrims is Bartholomew’s 16th outing as medieval physician cum sleuth in 14th century Cambridge. One of the reasons why I love Gregory’s mystery series so much is because she uses her extensive knowledge of history and the history of medicine in her novels. Who doesn’t want to know the historical difference between a physician and a surgeon? That medieval physicians treated you by first drawing up a horoscope? Or that only barbers and butchers were allowed to perform surgery? Or that washing your hands too much made people suspicious of you? Of course you do. And everything you’ll read about medicine and cures are true (trust me, I studied the history of medicine.)

I must confess I no longer read Gregory’s books so much for the mystery, which are not too intricate, but more for the rich social history of the period. Gregory uses real-life historical figures that she fictionally expands and her Cambridge is colourful, smelly and dangerous. And her characters are funny, hysterical and, although exaggerated, describe the many prejudices and fears that were all too prevalent at the time in a country slowly recovering from the plague.

In The Killer of Pilgrims, Bartholomew is busy teaching his pupils at Michaelhouse College (later to become Trinity College), tending to his predominantly poor patients and trying to prevent any outbursts of violence between the rival hostels and colleges of Cambridge. The town has also seen a spate of robberies of reliquaries, souvenirs from pilgrimages that people keep on their person to ward off evil and heal sickness. The students of the hostels and colleges have been competing with each other with pranks that have resulted in a few deaths. The university has also organised a game of camp-ball between the Carmelites and Gilbertines for which Bartholomew will act as the official physician, a job he doesn’t relish because of the violence involved. In this busy period, a dead body is found in Michaelhouse’s grounds and Bartholomew is once again called upon by his friend and colleague Brother Michael, the University Proctor, to be his official Corpse Examiner. Put in a half-finished roof, a deluge of rain, an empty pantry and a rich evil old lady who requests Bartholomew to tend to her toothache, and you get a complicated and deadly yet very merry romp through medieval Cambridge.

As always, I recommend you start right at the beginning with A Plague on Both Your Houses which sets Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael firmly in medieval Cambridge’s social scene. I guarantee you’ll come away with a healthy respect for today’s physicians.

Many thanks to Little Brown who kindly sent me a copy of The Killer of Pilgrims to review.

I read this for the Thriller and Suspense Challenge 2010 and R.I.P. V Challenge.

A Vein of Deceit by Susanna Gregory

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).