Brother Michael & Matthew Bartholomew

(creator: Susanna Gregory)

Susanna Gregory
A Plague on Both Your Houses cover
Continued from previous page

The Killer of Pilgrims (2010)
The Killer of Pilgrims describes how, when a wealthy benefactor is found dead in Michaelhouse in 1538, Brother Michael and Matthew Bartholomew have to find the culprit before the College is accused of foul play. At the same time, Cambridge is plagued by a mystery thief of holy relics, who is targeting rich pilgrims. Moreover, pranksters are at large in the University, staging a series of practical jokes that are growing increasingly dangerous, and are dividing scholars into bitterly opposed factions. As further deaths follow, Bartholomew and Michael realise that the different mysteries are connected, and grow more and more determined to catch the killer-thief.

It is another entertaining story with most of the old familiar characters behaving just as they have always done (Michael's dreadful choir included) so it is hard to avoid the feeling that we have read it all before. Indeed there is even some repitition within the book itself as there are several minor things that we are told twice. But old, rich and unscrupulous Edith de Colvyll, (who imperiously demands treatment for her aching tooth but will not let Matthew pull it out) is a lively, arresting character. "You cannot buy your way into Heaven," Bartholomew warns her.
"Actually, you can," countered Edith. "And my great wealth (part of which she uses to support worthy causes) will secure me the best spot available. Although,obviously, I shall not be needing it for many years yet."

I also enjoyed the author's down-to-earth approach as when she described builders enjoying "a lewd discussion about the famously creative talents of Blaston's wife (who) worked as a prostitute to supplement the family income and could do amazing things with "a handful of chestnuts and a damp cloth". Perhaps it is just as well that we are not told exactly what it is that she does!

Background details (such as the bitter enmity between colleges and hostels and the violent game of camp-ball) are convincingly described - even if Matthew's use of the term "chain reaction" seems distinctly out of place in 1358. And it seems to be stretching it a bit when he is ordered by the master of his college to sleep with Edith's unattractive daughter so as to safeguard the old lady's financial support. It is left to Bartholomew to point out that this might have had exactly the opposite effect.

Neither Michael nor Bartholomew are really very shrewd detectives but they both make determined investigators. Mind you, the identity of the master mind behind the crimes is so unlikely that you can hardly blame them for getting it wrong! And the climax is way over the top.

Mystery in the Minster (2011)
Mystery in the Minster is set in York in 1358. A legacy from a previous Archbishop of York has left the parish of Huntington, which is very run-down but close to the city, to the college of Michaelhouse in Cambridge. However the vicars-choral at York Minster (led by the stereotyped "fat, sly" Sub-Chanter Ellis and his henchman, Cave, "who looks like an ape") also claim ownership, so a deputation is sent from Michaelhouse to establish their own claim. Amongst the small party are Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael. When they arrive, they encounter the immediate hostility of the vicars-choral, and all this at a time when a possible French invasion is an ever present threat to the port. Bartholomew and Michael soon find that almost all the archbishop's executors seem to be dying in strange ways, and the codicil naming Michaelhouse as a beneficiary cannot be found. Then a spring flood engulfs the city, and all builds up to a melodramatic and highly unlikely denoument.

The York setting is interesting, as is the rivalry between surgeon and physician, each with clearly defined job descriptions, although this will come as no surprise to readers of previous books. However the plot almost totally lacks any real zip or excitement, and this is true even when Michael and Bartholomew are left to drown with water rising all around them. You know they are certain to survive.

When Radeford (who taught law at Michaelhouse) claims to have discovered the identity of French spies but refuses to reveal what he has found to Michael until Langelee, the Master of Michaelhouse, is available, you know that he is likely to meet a sticky end. And so he does. The sinister Marmaduke, a defrocked priest who is now the guardian of St Sampson's toe, the nun Alice, the beautiful Lady Helen who enjoys arguing theological points and and her cousin Isabella, a novice who plans to stage the play The Conversion of the Harlot, turn out to be characters that are quite beyond belief.

The one bit that is quite exciting is when Bartholomew's book-bearer Cynric is taken prisoner – and Bartholomew uncovers a body recently buried in a ruined church. But then both Michael and Bartholomew are taken prisoner - and, as usual the villain makes the fatal mistake by insisting on having long explanatory conversations with them. “Mother of God!" rightly mutters one of the conspirators. “More chatter?"

After all the murder and mayhem, we are told that, “It did not take long for Bartholomew, Michael, Langelee and Cynric to settle back into college life. The summer term was always busy, with students preparing for final disputations, and they threw themselves into the familiar routine with a sense of relief." So even they don't seem to take it all too seriously!

Murder by the Book (2012)
Murder by the Book describes how in 1358 the University at Cambridge is in turmoil over the opening of a new Common Library. There is an attack on one of the masters at a meeting to discuss the matter, and a body is found floating in the pond in the library's garden on the eve of its opening.

Meanwhile, there are rumours of a large force of dangerous smugglers lurking in the Fens. Aided by their friend Sheriff Tulyet, Bartholomew and Michael must thwart the invaders before the Feast of Corpus Christi the following week. Otherwise, there will be "the most cataclysmic event ever to befall this town." As usual, Bartholomew gets viciously attacked - but, of course, he survives both attacks.

As always the Cambridge background (at a time when even the dissection of rats was forbidden) holds the interest, and the recent arrival of Holm, a new surgeon, may, Bartholomew hopes, lessen his load. But he turns out to be a thoroughly unpleasant character who has arranged to marry wealthy Julitta (a pretty young woman whom Bartholomew himself much admires) just to get his hands on her money, and he also proves to be a lazy, incompetent surgeon. It is he who blithely tells Bartholomew, "I wish it had been Gyseburne, Rougham or Meryfield who had died. Or you, for that matter." It was at this point, we are told, that Bartholomew "found himself beginning to dislike the man"!

While the group of doctors are busily experimenting to find a lamp fuel that will give them a steady light at night, other experimenters are trying to recreate wildfire, a dreadful weapon of war that engulfs everything in flames. Meanwhile, the suspicious deaths mount up to as many as ten. It's what you might call over-kill or, as Michael not too brightly put it, "There is something untoward unfolding here."

Could all this have anything to do with the new library, now nearing completion? It does not make a very strong or credible plot, and some characters, like Michael's old grandmother, the indomitable Dame Pelagia, (who "had spent the greater part of her life spying for the various monarchs through whose reigns she had lived. She was also ruthlessly skilled with knives") hovers around in the background controlling everything, are distinctly over the top. As Michael points out, "She is a remarkable woman, is she not? There cannot be many elderly ladies who played a role at the Battle of Poitiers." How true!

This is the 18th book in the series, and it is hardly surprising if the author is rather running out of ideas. But if you don't try to take it too seriously, it provides another quite entertaining read, as when Bartholomew's old colleague Clippesby (who still talks to animals but does not seem to be quite as silly as he makes himself out to be) solemnly reports back on interesting things that his tame rat has overheard.

The Lost Abbot (2013)
The Lost Abbot tells how in the summer of 1358 Matthew Bartholomew finds himself one of a party of Bishop's Commissioners sent north from Cambridge to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the Abbot of Peterborough who, they soon discover, seems to have been "an ugly customer".

Bartholomew and his colleagues meet up with the Unholy Trinity of Peterborough's almoner, treasurer and cellarer, who are at the heart of a vicious power struggle. The unrest and discontent seems to have spread throughout the town: a feisty rabble-rouser is encouraging the poor to rise up against their overlords, and there are bitter rivalries between competing shrines and the financial benefits of the relics they hold. One of these shrines is dedicated to Lawrence de Oxforde, a robber and murderer, who was executed for his crimes, but who has been venerated ever since miracles started occurring at his grave. It is here that a murder occurs, virtually in the presence of Bartholomew and his friend Brother Michael. It is the first of eight sudden deaths, several of them occurring in a surprising, violent, if rather melodramatic, climax, in which strange truths emerge - so strange in fact that they take some believing.

The characters come alive as interesting individuals. Amongst the more eccentric, Bartholomew's companion, Brother Clippesby, continues to talk to animals, ranging from a kitchen mouse that warns him about another monk ("She said last night that she is unsure of his sincerity") to spiders and a wasp (that stings him). Bartholomew suspects that he gets much of his (often correct) information by simple eavesdropping.

Even minor characters can be memorable. These include "a very fat woman in middle years" who waxes indignant about her missing husband, a physician who had "thought that a healer's wife should set a good example, and he ordered me to lose weight. It was entirely ureasonable."
"Indeed it was," agreed (stout) Michael sincerely. "Completely unfair."

It is a lively story, told with a nice sense of humour throughout, as when Bartholomew is told that his friend Brother Michael would make a good new Abbot: "Your portly friend would be worthy of the post. He has natural dignity, a clever mind and he is honourable."
"I am sure he would be the first to agree," said Bartholomew.
The competition beween monks of different orders is realistically described: "Benedictines are venal and greedy, and everyone knows it .... The Franciscan Order is the only one God really likes," comments Brother William.

Although interest sags a little in places, it makes an enjoyable (if not always too convincing) read.

Death of a Scholar (2014)
Death of a Scholar is set in the summer of 1358. The physician Matthew Bartholomew wants to help his recently widowed sister cope not only with the cloth trading business that she has been left but with her wayward son, but a spate of burglaries distracts him from the task. These include the theft of irreplaceable items from Michaelhouse.

Meanwhile, a new foundation, Winwick Hall, is causing consternation amongst Bartholomew's colleagues. The founder has used his wealth to rush the construction of the hall, and his appointed Fellows have infiltrated the charitable Guild founded by Stanmore, in order to gain the support of Cambridge's most influential citizens on Winwick's behalf. Trouble is brewing between the older establishments and the brash newcomers when the murder of a leading member of the Guild is soon followed by the death of one of Winwick's senior Fellows, with other deaths to follow. As usual, Barthlomew assists Brother Michael with his investigations - he even dissects two bodies - and as usual he puts his own life at risk. And on to a rather melodramatic and unconvincing finale.

This is the 20th book in the series, and there seems little new on offer. If you have read the previous books, you may find the setting and plot a little over familiar (Clippesby is still chatting to animals - although he has taken to the hen coop now - and Brother Michael's awful choir is getting to be a very old joke). It's a long book too that progresses at a leisurely pace with more lengthy conversations than exciting action (even if there are six deaths) and it would benefit from pruning. As it is, it struggles to hold the interest, although the main characters remain interesting in themselves - even if Bartholomew still has difficulty in choosing between the two women he loves. It is a pity that neither Michael or Bartholomew prove to be very shrewd detectives ("We were stupid," Michael admits). But what is still entirely convincing is the background portrayal of 14th century Cambridge. But surely the series has just about run its course?

A Grave Concern (2016)
A Grave Concern sees physician Matthew Bartholomew and his friend Brother Michael struggling to Identify the murderer of the Chancellor of the University, apparently killed after a struggle with the devil on top of St Mary the Great church tower! This is not Matthew's only problem: many of his patients have been made worse by the ministrations of a barber 'surgeon' recently arrived from Nottingham, his sister is being rooked by the mason she has commissioned to build her husband's tomb, and Brother Michael has at last been offered a Bishopric which will cause him to leave Cambridge.

Brother Michael, keen to leave the University in good order, is determined that the new Chancellor will be a man of his choosing and hopes he can just appoint him, but he doesn't get his way as various contenders emerge and an election is called. Then they start being murdered one after another until only two are left!

The story gets off to an interesting start but then the pace slows down and it settles down into a series of very long slow-moving events that do not always hold the interest.There is little sense of excitement except when Bartholomew manages to get himself captured and conveniently overhears soldiers giving away the plot.This seems a distinctly corny device, as is the occasion when one of the villains declares that he is about to dispatch his two prisoners and announces gleefully, "What a coup - Bartholomew and Tulyet on the same night! That will teach them to annoy me." There is page after page of conjecture and conversation about who might have done what, and, now that we have reached the 22nd volume in the series, even the usually intriguing 14th century Cambridge background begins to pall, although the clashing personalities of the large and imaginatively drawn cast still have some interest - but it all ends with an unconvincing piece of melodrama involving an attempt to send church bells crashing down onto our heroes.

Bartholomew is not the world's greatest detective and often suspects the wrong people. He cannot even make up his mind what to do about the "love of his life" Matilde who is about to return to Cambridge after four and a half years and "he feared they could not just pick up from where they had left off", being "hopelessly confused about his feelings towards her." In fact, she doesn't even turn up until the very end of the story - and even then Bartholomew has not yet met up with her. We are being made to wait for this to develop (or not) in yet another book - but I am afraid I shall not be reviewing it. The series has succeeded in building up a very convincing picture of Cambridge in mediaeval times, but, once you have read all the previous books, it all begins to sound increasingly repetitive. And so do my reviews!

The author has her own website with some interesting background information. There are also brief mentions of her on her publisher's website.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


An Unholy Alliance cover
Some of the covers look very similar. And so is the content.
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