Nearly two years after the plague arrived in Cambridge society is starting to recover, and Matthew Bartholomew has settled into a comfortable routine of teaching students and tending to patients. Then a man no one knows is found dead in a chest containing the University’s most secret papers, having picked six locks to get there. The proctors have their hands full thanks to the nearby Stourbridge fair, and the chancellor doesn’t care to bring in outsiders, so Bartholomew and Brother Michael are given the task of finding out who the man was, how he died, and whether a warts-and-all history of the university written by a man now dead had anything to do with his fate. Michael is delighted at the opportunity for intrigue (his second-favourite hobby, after eating) but Bartholomew had far rather prepare his students for their disputations - and hope that Robert Deynman fails.
But what the chancellor wants, the chancellor gets. Soon Bartholomew is up to his ears in murder, attempted murder, vanishing acts, theft, kidnapping, highway robbery, sinister warnings, satanic cults, and the appearance of someone who ought not to be alive. Not only is there the body in the box to be investigated, but the repeated ambushing of Oswald Stanmore’s carts and a serial killer butchering the town’s prostitutes - or any woman out late enough to be mistaken for one. Many of them have the symbol of one of the cults drawn in blood on one foot - a signature, or a diversion? If the former, could one of the leading men of the town be involved? Why is the sheriff so unwilling to take on the case? Are there three mysteries, or two, or just one? And how do you deal with one student who think’s you’re a heretic and another as dense as one of Agatha the laundress’s leaden loaves?
Poor Bartholomew. Fate seems determined to keep dragging him into the quagmire of University politics, the very thing he likes least. The first time round was bad enough; but now it’s the secrets of the whole university, not one college, and however closely they might be tied to the case the chancellor is not about to give those secrets up - even if Nicholas of York did die for them. And with a psycho serial killer on the loose the stakes are even higher. It’s impossible not to think of Jack the Ripper, but this isn’t a copying of history - killer and motive alike are very much fourteenth century. Post-plague fourteenth century, I should say; one of the most interesting things about the book is the picture it paints of life after the Death and the ways in which people reacted. Some cling more closely to the tenets of the Church, some turn away from it, and Bartholomew does his best to produce the new doctors desperately needed to replace those who died. Unfortunately this means teaching Brother Boniface - a Franciscan fanatic who believes that if God didn’t intend physicians to use leeches for everything, he wouldn’t have created them - and the hilariously blockheaded Robert Deynman. The latter had me laughing out loud with the dumb things he did, while the former turned out to have an unexpected side to his character that went a long way toward redeeming his earlier outbursts.
For about one mad moment per book I wish Susanna Gregory would lay out all her clues so that the reader has a chance at putting them together before Bartholomew does. Then I realise there’s no point - I would never manage it. I saw the significance of something a few paragraphs before it was explained, but that was the sum total of my deductive success. And really I’m content to sit back, enjoy the characters, the history, and the plot, and be utterly confused.