It is inevitable that Ann Swinfen’s latest theme – a foray into fourteenth century Oxford murder mysteries – will be compared to the peerless Susanna Gregory. The parallels are clear: University versus townsfolk and a mild-manner, reluctant sleuth with his wealthier, altruistic sidekick. There is plenty of reference to matters ecclesiastic, a mystery that is intellectual, characters who are well-rounded, gently pleasing, and a narrative that moves from place to place in a tidy fashion. All liberally peppered with references to a city that shows off the author’s personal knowledge of the a post-plague Oxford.
It is a winning formula, as Ms Gregory has demonstrated with her 20+ novels of Matthew Bartholomew and Cambridge.
The opening novel of this new venture by Swinfen introduces us to bookseller, Nicholas Elyot. A widower, with his young daughter, Alysoun, he lives with his sister, Margaret, plying a trade as a scrivener, a bookseller. He has two employees, Walter and Roger: a small but tidy business that guarantees him sufficient income for the author to use pecuniary methods to elicit information and action during the novel.
The story opens with Elyot’s daughter, as all 5 year olds are wont, begging him to save a canine litter from being drowned by one Oxford’s millers. The result is this family expand by one puppy, Rowan. Giving in to his daughter’s pleas to see the rest housed, leads Nicholas to stumble across the body of a University student, William Farringdon, floating in the river Cherwell. His discovery of a stab mark in the back of this talented young scrivener pricks at the conscience of our sleuth. This, coupled with the familiar apathy of the authorities to investigate and the tensions over jurisdiction between university colleges and the town, encourages him to investigate further with the reluctant assistance of his friend, Jordain.
Quickly he establishes some kind of motive, associated with an Irish Psalter, and two mendacious, shifty villains. There is a subtle plot of greed afoot at Merton College.
Not wishing to give away spoilers, this reviewer cannot mention any further character names. This is where Swinfen needs to improve. There is a dearth of characters which means it is fairly simple for a reader to work out motive, murderers by the time the book is half done. The denouement is also weak: it is the last action and should be more climatic than it is. Given the evil-doers are built up as rough, murderous characters then the capture is all too tame, meek and mild. Not wholly convincing. Yet, for all this, one keeps reading because Swinfen possesses the undoubted talent to write a captivating story. The novels just need more depth: characters, action, events, intellectual enigmaticism.
So, is Ms Swinfen as good as Ms Gregory?
Honestly, no (she could reach that lofty height). But, she is clearly excellent at the genre and I would encourage anyone who loves the Bartholomew mysteries to read these (three novels at the time of this review). I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.