Gregory’s twentieth Matthew Bartholomew mystery is titled “Death of a Scholar” but it might be better to call it “Death by cake” given the pastry murders that abound here. She has us back in Cambridge in the autumn of 1358. A triple prologue gives us the death of Matt’s brother-in-law, Oswald Stanmore; the rapid foundation of the ninth and newest college, Winwick Hall; and the ‘resurrection’ of master felon, John Potmoor. Add to that the opening scene of the death of the titular scholar, Geoffrey de Elvesmere in a latrine and we’re at a sprint. By the end eight more corpses, a riot, and more convoluted intrigue than you’d expect will make any reader’s brain hurt.
Matthew and Michael are back from Peterborough to find a new college rising out of the mud of Cambridge with unseemly haste. Sherriff Dick Tulyet is out of town; de Stannell, his deputy, in charge. John Winwick is determined to make a name for himself and has sponsored the expansion of the scholars of Cambridge in a manner that has got the rest of the intellectuals grumbling into their Agatha-brewed potage. Of course, this gives Gregory a chance to allow a host of new characters into Matt and Michael’s lives. The new fellows at Winwick comprise Provost Illesy and the tutors Ratclyfe, Nerli, Lawrence, and Bon. There’s a new apothecary in town, Eyer, plus the new vicar of St Mary’s, Heyford. A new college has meant a flood of matriculands, headed by the obnoxious Goodwyn, egged on by the ever more surly Richard Stanmore who is fast becoming a chore to both his mother Edith and his uncle Matt. Dozens more inveigle their way into the mystery, the author handling them with the literary deftness that is her hallmark.
This mystery is particularly confounding, the lengthy riotous denouement revealing a host of nefarious characters and motives who literally bring the house down. Matt’s trysts with Julitta continue in this novel, Michael has to deal with the penurious state of Michaelhouse after a robbery (in fact seven hostels, three Colleges and a Priory are robbed with several town houses), and there is a series of debates on the theological concepts of apostolic poverty – which is compounded by a ludicrous yet heretical text the ever-dirty William pens to the delight of a blackmailer. Not much to solve in a week before the inauguration of the new College. All of which has Matt forced to indulge in a bit of human dissection to prove how people have died. As Michael encourages him:
“What is not right is failing to do all in our power to clear his name and ensure he lies in the grave he deserves. I am not happy with desecration either, but I am prepared to set aside my aversion for the sake of justice.”
At the heart of this novel is greed and personal advancement. Selfishness abounds, prosperity is desired and “it is common knowledge that if you want a college to prosper, you should appoint a villain to mind its coffers.” Indeed.
This time fans of ‘Cluedo’ will have a field day given it’s a glut of ‘Miss Scarlett with the dormirella in the cellar’ or ‘Colonel Mustard with the sword in the latrine’. People are dispatched through all manner of nasty accidents. Cambridge is sorely in trouble this time with “bloodshed, as the University goes to war with the town and itself.” Yet by the end of it, Matthew’s kindly nature and unfailing medical philanthropy saves him and the scholars . It is his “ruffianly clients” who save him and Michaelhouse and, as he wryly observes “I would not change them for world.”
And, for this reader, I would not change Susanna Gregory’s storytelling for the world, either. Peerless.