A Vein of Deceit
Gregory’s latest 14th century mystery has us leaving the comfort of Michaelhouse and Cambridge to head into murky Suffolk and to a pair of feuding villages to uncover the twisted economic plotting that surround the mysterious death of Wynewyk. A classic Bartholomew case where three seemingly unlinked deaths (Carbo, Joan and Wynewyk) gradually coalesce around the pursuit of coal, pigs and wood. Throw in a couple of unsavoury characters, Goss and his seemingly inhuman sister Odoma, with a healthy mix of three grumbling new students for Bartholomew – Risleye, Valence and Tesdale – and you get another cracking mystery. King’s College apparent guilt in the entire matter (Paxtone leading the way this time) adds extra spice.
The author’s decision to take us out of Cambridge for a while is as much a breath of fresh air as when we traipsed up to Ely in “A Summer of Discontent”. It gives us a greater chance to observe the perfect matching of the big-boned senior proctor and his Corpse Examiner as we realise in this outing Matthew is quite capable of serious character misjudgement. Facts he is good at, understanding people he is not. A fact driven home by the reappearance of his beloved Mathilde and his obstinate clinging to notion that everyone is incapable of immoral judgement – an odd trait for a sleuth.
The list of deaths take us to confront Wynewk’s shady business partners who are all embroiled with Kings College over the inheritance of a manor and its land. All three own up to their economic mis-dealings pretty swiftly after Michael and Matthew are forced to take undignified cover in a ditch whilst being shot at with arrows. Still, the threads eventually come, Matthew is reluctantly forced to accept what is glaringly obvious as more of the village-folk start moving to meet their Maker and – in what is becoming fairly consistent as the denouement for Gregory – we end up with the traditional fights as the cornered murderers try to bring their nefarious plotting to a spectacular end. I admit I do like the character of Isnard. The rough, overly superstitious bargeman who cheerfully spouts utter nonsense to Matthew’s eternal dismay is highly amusing. With Cynric’s watchful, yet equally superstitious bumbling, the pair make a fine sideshow. I also liked that Gregory has Wynewyk dying for his own personal 30 marks of silver. Oblique but erudite and encapsulates the depths of skills the author possesses.
Gregory (or Cruwys as the author is really known) is one of the finest medieval murder mystery authors writing today. Erudite, with an eye for detail, a marvellous sense of creeping problem solving, empathetic characterisation and labyrinthine plots, my eyes always light up when the next Bartholomew or Chaloner hits the shelves. A must read to any fan of the genre to be frank. I hope the series continues a good long while even if to see Matthew and Mathilde united at last!
A Killer in Winter
The excellent pseudonymous Susanna Gregory returns with her ninth installment of the Mathew Bartholomew chronicles and doesn’t disappoint. From the prologue where the messenger Josse’s accidental death turns out to be a boon for someone and the death of Norbert, laconic brother of the now retired Sheriff of Cambridge’s, Richard Tulet, Gregory settles into her latest mystery with effortless ease, instantly creating a a tuly piscine tale with both plot and scene with that easy familiarity that is her hallmark.
We plunge into a humorous opening with Michael’s ridiculous attempts to spy on a Cambridge newcomer, Harysone, based on personal dislike and demanding Matthew declare the man’s insanity without actually meeting him before swiftly finding another corpse in Michaelhouse’s church. The anticipation of the coming Christmas means that Michael is forced to choose which murder to investigate first and Bartholomew’s life is complicated by the return of his once-betrothed – Phillipa Abigny.
Phillipa is drastically changed from the woman who left him to marry the fishmonger and Mayor of London-desiree, Turke and both she and her brother, Giles Abigny arrive to stay at Edith and Stanmore’s house.
Murder and mayhem swiftly follow as Christmas sets in, Michaelhouse electing Deynham its twelve day Lord of Misrule. Unlike in Gregory’s previous offering up at Ely, the murdered body count is low this time (though the eventaul tally is high after it turns out everyone was culpable to some degree and ends up dying to tie up all the loose ends). There is Norbert, the dead `beggar’ in St Michael’s is discovered to be Gosslinge, Turke’s servant and Turke himself dies suspiciously after literally skating on thin ice. Gregory kills off the old rivermen from preceding novels, Aethelbad and Dunstan as the harsh winter takes its toll (there’s more snow that Cambridge has ever seen since!) and we unravle more of the shadowly political dealings that weave through Cambridge.
Amongst it all runs the mysterious Dympna, a charitable organisation that ends up having a sideline, the Chepe Waits (comprising Frith, Makejoy, Jestyn and Dyna) a travelling band of thieving jugglers, the newly arrived and dislikeable Quenhyth, and Ovying hostel gets a thorough runout with its head, Ailred. All of which has both Matthew and Michael scratching their heads at all the clues but unable to make sense of the sequence of events. The key to it all, in a delightful piece of murder mystery irony, is the Fraternity of fishmen and the protagonists relationships to each other.
So, by the time Matthew ends up in a barn having a particularly nasty hayfork jabbed at him during his attempt to free both Michael and Kenyngham we have had a double denouement, the lengthy first answering most of the questions but not all, the second culminating in the fight and the final two culprits racing off with the charitable gold and falling into the icy river. At the end the body count is high (though most of them are a grim justice), Matthew’s relationship with Phillipa is resolved (we get the hint somewhat to Mathilde’s relief) and the twelve day debacle provides levity throughout.
Right now, there is no better historical murder writer out there. Gregory’s style, prose, plot and descriptive writing makes fourteenth century Cambridge immensely plausible, he characters are well crafted and empathic and, above all, the reader is left craving more. A truly fishy tale has been created here and Gregory has done nothing to make her audience even want her to lay down her pen. An author at the height of her literary powers
A Conspiracy of ViolencePseudonymous Susanna Gregory finally takes the step of having a new character and a new setting. However, it is the familiar gripping plots, eloquent style and descriptive powers, taut narrative and fine characterization that remain. Her Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles are a fine example of the medieval murder mystery and it is fair to say she ranks alongside Ellis Peters at the top of the genre.
So, Thomas Falconer, a.k.a Tom Heyden, disgraced clerk, recently returned from his career in Holland, desperately seeking a reference from the old Parliamentarian power, Thurloe, and finding himself immediately embroiled in a chase through the streets of Restoration London hunting the killers of a delivery boy, Storey and Snow, hired incompetent thugs of Kelyng, a fanatical royalist and hunter of regicides.
Very quickly, Chaloner finds himself serving three masters. The first is Thurloe, the ex-Parliamentarian, with his sister Sarah and brother-in-law Dalton, who asks Chaloner to discover who murdered John Clarke, a spy he had recommended to Chaloner’s second master. This is the Lord Chancellor, Lord Clarendon, who also commissions him and his aide, the military man who fears the entire animal kingdom, Evett in another search for the hidden gold of the Tower of London that was placed there by the regicide Barkstead. This brings him into contact with Wade and Robinson who previously had assisted excavations in the Tower. His third master is to be Dalton, employed as a clerk.
Before long Chaloner is embroiled with the Brotherhood. A collective of the Leybourn brothers, his mendacious ex-master, Downing, Livesay (who was blown up), Ingoldsby, Barkstead (the executed regicide) and Hewson (who was murdered by Kelyng’s men at the very beginning. Their plan to prevent the extremes of royalist and parliamentarian and the talk of the original seven men who tried to prevent the Restoration leads Chaloner into a murky plot of political intrigue where the phrases praising the son of God and number seven figure prominently.
Thrown into the mix is his personal life as his relationship with Metje, his Dutch lover, causes issues with his landlord, North, his wife Faith and Temperance, his daughter. To this home brew is added the fanatical Preacher Hill who’s fire and brimstone faith is causing no end of vandalism to their local church.
In true Gregory style we are taken on a trail that twists and turns alarmingly at time as we are thrown red herring after red herring, ghostly clue after tantalising glimpse of fact until we are thoroughly confused. Only then is Chaloner allowed to locate the keystone to the mystery and a lot of questions resolved themselves rapidly as we uncover not a dastardly plot to kill a restored King, but a tale of terrible familial revenge and hidden treasure. With our shockingly fiery conclusion, Gregory wraps us to a neat end but opens us up to a series that will rival Bartholomew’s fourteenth century Cambridge in plot, characterisation, sleuthing prowess and historical craftsmanship. It is no surprise to find in the author’s note that all the characters bar our hero are based on real people and the society and politics described very close to the truth. What this isn’t is a repeat of the hugely successful Bartholomew series and we can only eagerly look forward to a new sleuth from the pen of an author at the height of her genre.