Susanna Gregory opens her latest Matthew Bartholomew mystery at the deathbed of Archbishop Zouche in July 1352. He is commending his soul to God and his affairs to nine executors who are commissioned both to say obits to lessen his time in Purgatory and build a Chapel for him. Scamper forward nearly six years and we meet a new Michaelhouse tutor. John Radeforde is a lawyer whose opportune position ensures he joins Michael, Langelee, Bartholomew, and Cynric who all go to York when the Master of Michaelhouse enters the common room waving a letter to claim the parish and Church at Huntingdon. The incumbent priest, Cotyngham, is incapacitated, presumed witless and this has triggered the clause in the Will of the six-year deceased Archbishop Zouche.
After a journey north our Cambridge fellowship meet the vicars-choral of York Minster – represented by Sub-Chanter Ellis and his two assistants, the “henchman” Cave and “pretty” Jafford – who dispute the codicil that grants the Michaelhouse scholars the rights to Huntingdon, demanding they produce it and hiring the odious Carmelite lawyer, Dalfeld to represent them. Fairly swiftly both sides square up, each claiming to have supporters who “heard” about Zouche’s real wishes. It means that by chapter Two Matthew narrowly escapes a chicken-fletched arrow that severely wounds Sir William Longton, brother to his more unsavoury brother John, the mayor who is obsessed (like Langelee) with French spies and besting the merchants headed by Gisbyrn.
Gregory has taken us from Cambridge to York and given us a host of new characters to understand. Two plots run through the novel – the first to gain the codicil and thus Huntingdon, the other to locate the French spies. All of this against teeming rain that threatens to flood the city. Against this backdrop we have the nine executors. Neville, Christopher Malore, Welton, Stiendby, Playce, are dead of odd ‘debilities’ such as “spotted liver” before the action of the novel. Two others: Ferriby and Roger Zouche die mid-novel, leaving only Marmaduke – a defrocked priest – still alive with Anketil Malore. The new Archbishop, Thoresby suspects foul murder is afoot and tasks Michaelhouse with finding the codicil, locating the spies, the truth behind both Cotyngham’s incapacitation, the disappearance of Zouche’s money, and whomever loosed an arrow at William Longton from the decrepit church of St Mary Valveas, little more than a plague pit now.
Not much for Matthew and Michael to sort out, then. They only wanted to claim an inheritance.
The host of characters also feature Outstwyk – a self-admitted gossip; the Benedictine alien house of Holy Trinity lead by Chozaico who is accused of harbouring French spies; the “perpetually suing everyone” Carmelite Order; Prioress Alice; the pious (yet of dubious intellectual ability) Isabella, who is obsessed with putting on a play about ‘The Conversion of a Harlot’; Zouche’s niece, Lady Helen – courted by Frost, who is a client of Gisbyrn the merchant who put the now-dead merchant Myton out of business; the Librarian Talerand who exasperates everyone with his unkempt charge; and last, but by no means least, Surgeon Fournays who Matthew quite seems to like. There are others who provide the glue to this nefarious mire of matters secular and episcopal and the author’s command of an array of characters and action is breath-taking at times.
It would take far too long to go through the action and the enjoyment of readers should not be spoiled by revealing what happens. Suffice it to say that we start on what seems an innocuous trip to York where “the notion of a brothel-crawl under the guidance of the Master was an activity none of them had anticipated as being on offer” and end up in a city that is flooding both metaphorically and literally with the medieval warring factions of priests and townsfolk coming to a head. Alliances and allegiances are formed, split, and reformed as Matthew tries to understand those who are mendacious, those who are noble; those who seek personal gain, those who represent a faction. Several deaths occur throughout the novel and Gregory unveils effortlessly her skill at having multiple motives and threads entwining. What makes Gregory so readable is that, after so many novels, a reader – who could reasonably expect to gain a familiarity with the author’s plot method – is still confused and surprised at the convoluted twists and turns. What is in plain sight may or may not be true. What is hidden is never quite as it seems.
In this latest novel revenge is dish best served with poison. It is a feast that is started by an innocuous death years ago where those who are left behind fight over a legacy and the best intentions of a kindly man are destroyed by those whose avarice consumes them.
As brilliant as ever, Susanna Gregory. Keep writing for as long as you can.