17 February 2009

Book Review: A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susanna Gregory

What’s in a Name? 2 Challenge #1

A Plague on Both Your Houses The bizarre death of the Master of Michaelhouse College appears to be suicide. At least, it does until it is swiftly followed by several more deaths, an assault, a ransacking, an attempted murder and a disappearing corpse. Added to a previous series of deaths in Cambridge colleges, it generates rumours of a plot by Oxford to undermine its rival. For with a terrible pestilence sweeping across the country, there may soon be only one university left standing; and the weaker Cambridge is to begin with, the greater the chance that Oxford will be it.

Michaelhouse’s Fellow of Medicine, Matthew Bartholomew, wants his friend’s death investigated. The Bishop wants to cover it all up. Bartholomew is forced to give in, and indeed has enough to do with preparing for the plague and dodging the malice of someone who’s clearly out to get him - though he hasn’t the faintest notion who or why. Then the Death hits Cambridge ... and despite the fact that people are dropping like flies, someone sees the need to commit another murder. Reasoning that the Bishop will be busy, Bartholomew decides to investigate the matter himself, and soon comes to suspect even his friends and family of being involved in the plot that’s afoot. That is, if the plot exists at all.

Who would have thought academic life could be so dangerous? That’s what I love about Susanna Gregory - she manages to combine loads of historical detail with a high body count and plenty of other crimes and misdemeanours. Mediaeval Cambridge springs to life on the page without slowing down the plot. And what a plot it is! By page 300 I was thoroughly baffled and wondering how on earth it could all be resolved. A hundred pages later I was marvelling at how something so (relatively) simple could spawn such a complex heap of criminal activity, and feeling both educated and entertained. As well as town and college life, the novel shows the chaos created by the black death and the waiting that preceded it.

Just as good as the plot are the characters. It’s been nearly four years since I last read any of this series, and I still had fond and vivid memories of Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael. The former is regarded as an oddity (or possibly a heretic) by his patients for insisting on cleanliness and ignoring such things as astrology, and the latter is a most unsaintly monk with a passion for food and for the sorts of intrigue and office politics that Bartholomew deplores. Having originally come to the series partway through, I enjoyed seeing how Bartholomew reluctantly arrived at the sideline of detective, and liked the way in which his amateur status showed itself as he took his time to put it all together and wasn’t always sure what to do next. He’s an ordinary man who just happens to have a murder mystery dropped in his lap, and who’s doing his best to get to the bottom of it. And by the end I thought he must also be part cat - in possession of nine lives, the better to fend off all those attempts to murder him. (The last time I caught myself thinking, what, again?)

The supporting characters are all brilliantly drawn, and the understandable shortage of women is more than made up for by the formidable Agatha the laundress (who regards herself as twice the man that most of the men are). The fictionalised world of Michaelhouse College (once real but long gone) is one that’s very hard to forget.

Rating: B+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776