|Brother Michael & Matthew Bartholomew
(creator: Susanna Gregory)
|Susanna Gregory is the pen name used by Elizabeth Cruwys (1958- ), who was educated in Bristol then earned degrees at Lancaster and Durham Universities before being awarded a Ph.D. at Cambridge University. She had had experience working as a coroner's officer, but subsequently became a Senior Research Associate at a Cambridge college where she did marine research at the Scott Polar Research Institute. As well as writing the numerous Matthew Barthomolew Chronicles, described below, she has also published other fiction titles (including a series of Thomas Challoner mysteries, set in Restoration London) and a number of non-fiction books, including ones on castles, cathedrals, historic houses and world travel. She also uses the pseudonym Simon Beaufort. She now lives in Wales with her husband who is also a writer.
Brother Michael is not the lead player in these stories, as this is a role that is always taken by physician Matthew Bartholomew who had himself taken minor holy orders but only so that he could be "ruled by church law rather than secular law", as this was much more lenient. But Michael moves from being a suspect in the first book to becoming Matthew's trusted ally in later stories. Living In Cambridge in England in the mid 14th century, he is an ambitious Benedictine monk, who believes in enjoying life, including ribald jokes when "his eyebrows shot up, his baggy green eyes glittering with amusement .... Despite Bartholomew's advice to moderate himself for the sake of his health, he was grossly overweight." When he had to move quickly, "a sheen of sweat glistened on his face and soaked into his lank brown hair". There were times when was known to have "made himself ill with his greed for food and wine". He would sit "hunched over his trencher, greedily cramming pieces of meat into his mouth .... Michael firmly believed that vegetables would damage his digestion and lived almost entirely on large quantities of meat, fish and bread."
Like Bartholomew, he is one of the Fellows of Michaelhouse (nowadays part of Trinity College), where he is Master of Theology. "Although Michael was a monk and not a friar - and would therefore not usually have been authorised to perform priestly duties - he had been granted special dispensation by the Bishop of Ely (whose special agent he is) to give last rites and hear confessions." This was because Benedictine monks were scarce in Cambridge, and the Bishop did not want his few monks confessing their sins to rival Orders.
"Usually the obese monk was well in control of his emotions, and he rarely allowed himself to be so discomfited that he was unable to come up with a sardonic remark or cutting response". So when he attended the installation of a new Master of whom he did not approve, "he "made his disapproval known by muttering loudly throughout the proceedings, and by coughing, apparently uncontrollably, in those parts that should have been silent." He "had always loved the intricate affairs of the College, and took a strange delight in the petty plays for power". He becomes a very effective Senior Proctor, a post in which he is responsible for enforcing law and order within the university. He can be aggressive if necessary, as when "he pushed his face close to that of the pardoner" and told him, "I do not like men who prey on the weakness of others, and I find your occupation odious in the extreme."
Bartholmew "had always known Michael was a man of culture and breeding - he was the younger son of an influential knight of King Edward's Court" but was surprised at how good a public speaker he could be, adapting himself to his audience and going out of his way to interest them. Bartholomew "wondered whether he would ever know the monk well enough never to be surprised by his hidden talents and abilities".
Michael has "a rich baritone voice" and claims to take the observance of the daily Offices very seriously : "I have missed Prime," he said horrified, "and I did not say Matins and Lauds last night .... I always say prayers before breakfast."
Bartholomew is very aware that Michael had "an obvious interest in women" and "was certain the fat monk was no more celibate than Matilde the prostitute". He also "regularly broke other rules of his Order - he nearly always started eating before grace, he did not keep his offices (but see Michael's own comments above), and his life style was far from simple". But he is always keen to help Bartholomew and sets off with him "with eyes gleaming in anticipation ". He not only encourages Bartholomew to stay the course ("Are you giving up? Are you going to let evil men tell us what we can and cannot do in our own town?"), but is happy to use his "formidable strength" to come to his rescue.
Michael may be fat (although he insists his shape is just due to "big bones"), but he is never afraid to speak his mind or use physical force if necessary. He becomes a good friend to Barthomew who knows he can trust him with dangerous secrets. And, when he becomes Senior Proctor, he plays more of a leading part - even if he seldom manages to identify murderers without Bartholomew's help.
A Plague on Both Your Houses (1996)
There are fierce rivalries "in a city where the scholars waged a constant war with each other and with the townsfolk ", and the Master of Michaelhouse is amongst those to die strange and inexplicable deaths. Then pestilence hits the town, wiping out whole communities. Bartholomew struggles to cope with an appalling situation in which he can do little to help the victims but has to struggle to get the streets cleared of the ever growing piles of the dead. His own life is threatened not only by the pestilence but by ambitious enemies whose plans he seems to be thwarting. He soon realises that "evil is afoot and will corrupt us all".
At first, Brother Michael seems to play only a minor role in the story, but then Bartholomew finds a note that makes him suspect Michael of being one of those plotting death and destruction, and he is chilled when Michael appears to threaten him, warning him, "By prying you have put yourself in danger". But he ends by trying to reassure Bartholomew, "We are friends, and I have tried to keep you out of all this".
It turns out that he had much more knowledge of what was really going on than Bartholomew did. In the end, it is he who, when their enemies take them prisoner, tells Bartholomew, "I believe I now know the truth". He admits that, "There were occasions when I was convinced you were the killer."
The main strength of the book lies in its description of plague-ridden Cambridge. Not all that much detection is involved, and the narrative gets rather drawn-out, but, in the end, plenty happens, and it gets the series off to quite a good start.
Indeed it is not long before more prostitutes have been found murdered in local churchyards, each with "a small red circle painted with blood on her feet". Bartholmew then stumbles across a derelict church, abandoned since its congregation was decimated by the plague, and finds that it is now the meeting place for a strange Satan-worshipping sect led by a sinister red-hooded character whom Bartholomew and Michael believe to be at the very heart of the mystery.
As in the previous book, there is plenty of action, including the exhumation of corpses and violent attacks all round, and the historical background is very well handled. It is the Chancellor of the University who tells Bartholomew (who has strange modern ideas about the value of cleanliness) that he would never risk a bath: "A bath would mean that I had to remove all my clothes," said the Chancellor disdainfully, "and I do not consider such an action healthy for a man in his fifties".
Bartholomew "was considered something of an oddity in the town for knowing both surgery and medicine. He believed that medicine and surgery could complement each other, and wanted his students to have knowledge of both, despite the fact that most physicians looked down on surgical techniques as the responsiblities of barbers. Another problem he faced was that those students who had taken major orders were forbidden to practise incision and cautery by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215." All this makes quite interesting reading, much more interesting in fact than some of the more unlikely complications of the plot.
As for the Satan worshippers, the author claims that as a result of the Black Death there was a shortage of priests and "a few people, bereft of clergy, began to turn to other forms of worship". But as it is over sensationalised, it is difficult to feel emotionally involved with the characters, and the story seem unduly protracted. But Michael is quite an endearing rascal, what with his apparent behind-the-scenes knowledge of the life of prostitutes, and the way that, as soon as a particularly grim meal was over, he "winked at Bartholomew and headed off towards the kitchens to scavenge left-overs".
A Bone of Contention (1997)
Like the other books, it gets off to an interesting start, but then it begins to drag - and unfortunately it goes on for as many as 500 pages in the paperback edition! The Cambridge historical background is convincing, and some of the period detail is fascinating, such as the way that Bartholomew "had gradually abandoned astrological consultations as a tool to determine the causes of a person's malaise. It was a decision that made him unpopular with his fellow physicians, and often resulted in accusations of heresy. But there was no denying he lost fewer patients than his colleagues, a remarkable achievement given that most of his clients were less well-nourished and more prone to infections than the wealthier citizens the other physicians doctored." But then he alone believed in washing his hands, and had no time for the customary blood-letting.
He is not so successful in his private life, though, for, as he casually tells Michael, his fiancee Philippa, who had set off to sample the delights of London more than a year before, had gone on to marry someone else. Michael suggests, "Perhaps you should consider becoming a monk, like me."
He is not entirely credible, nor are some of the other characters. It is Matilde who, somewhat improbably invited by him to attend a Founders' Day Feast, comes disguised as an old woman "crook-backed and thin, wearing a dowdy, russet dress that hung loosely from her hunched figure". Her idea was to save him embarrassment! He does not recognise her until she smiles at him "revealing small, perfectly white teeth in a face that had evidently been stained with something to make her skin look leathery, while carefully painted black lines served as wrinkles." Bartholomew ends up by deciding that as far as women are concerned, "he would most definitely not embark on any more friendships with them until he had devoted more time to understanding them". Actual sex seems to play no part in his life.
The author's style of writing can sound hackneyed as when one of the potential villains "leaned against the wall and his eyes narrowed into hard, violent slits". Or when Bartholomew captures a woman suspect, he wonders aloud: "So, what do we do now? If I leave you here alive, you will raise the alarm and Bigod will come after me. If I bind and gag you, you will tell them I was here when they release you, and they will have little problem in hunting me down in the town."
There is a lot too of rather boring conjecture, as when Bartholomew ponders "about Kenzie, a young Scot who had had the misfortune to fall in love with a woman whose father would never accept him, and who was forced to keep his relationship secret. So who had killed him? Was it Dominica's angry father? Was it her mother? Since it did not take a great feat of strength to brain a man from behind, Bartholomew knew that a woman could have slain Kenzie as easily as a man. Perhaps Cecily's guilt was the real reason for the sudden flight from home. Were the killers the friars from Godwinsson, who were the last people known to have seen Kenzie alive? Was his death a random killing by someone intent on theft? And if so, was it Kenzie's ring that adorned Valence Marie's relic? But why had the two French students been ushered out of Godwinsson when Michael had asked to speak to them? Perhaps they were the murderers, and not the friars at all." And so it goes on - and on - getting very repetitive.
The book's main problem, though, is that with its "tangled web of lies and misunderstandings", it seems over-extended and does not hold the interest throughout. There are some amusing moments, but not enough of them, and some of what humour there is seems quite unintentional, as when a woman's poisoned husband, Lydgate, lies dying: "You still love Simon d'Ambrey, even though he died all those years ago?" Bartholomew asks her. "Lydgate (busy dying) made a sound, that had he been strong enough, would probably have been a snort of derision". Bartholmew then goes on to say, "So Dominica is the daughter of Simon d'Ambrey. Then "on the floor, Lydgate gave an agonised gurgle. Although he could still hear, the poison had deprived him of coherent speech." It's not really funny, of course, but you can't take it too seriously either.
It is this same woman, Cecily, who later gets shot by a crossbow, "her hands clawing at the bolt that protruded from her chest. Her bulbous eyes popped out even further as she sank on to the grass." She too takes a long time to die because Bartholomew has now identified the master crook (who for years had been cunningly disguised as a distinguished colleague, a well-respected old friar!) and has to keep him talking until rescue arrives. But when Bartholomew demands, "On what authority do you presume to act as judge over your fellow men? there is "a tense silence, and even (the still dying) Cecily desisted with her soft moans". But then when the man with the cross bow prepares at last to shoot Bartholomew, a voice rings out loud and strong, "Drop it!'. Rescue had arrived - as you knew it would! But the rest of it makes a slow-moving tale.
Deadly Brew (1998)
The story gets off to a good start with the dramatic theft of six bottles of apparently poisoned wine. The thief hoped "he could sell the wine for enough to keep him in bread for a week if he told people it was finest claret and charged a penny a bottle" - but he had no idea what a dangerous brew he was offering them.
The 14th century Cambridge background is as well described as usual, and we learn some interesting things about Brother Michael who had turned down the position of Master of Valence Marie (the modern-day Pembroke College) because the Bishop of Ely had "intimated my career would be better served by my remaining Senior Proctor ... He promised to look after my advancement when the time is right." Michael is nothing if not ambitious, and "had amassed considerable power .... and recently had started to undertake duties usually performed by the Chancellor himself". Bartholmew was not so sure that the Bishop could be trusted. "Has he promised to make you Chancellor one day?" he asked drily. "Or is it his own position you crave?"
But fat and greedy though Michael is, he turns out to be a good communicator both with young people and with women. How well he knows, or has known, the prostitute known as Lady Matilde ("According to popular rumour, she had once been a lady-in-waiting to a duchess but had been dismissed for entertaining one too many gentlemen in her chambers") is left open to speculation. But he certainly seems to enjoy hearing nuns' confessions which he describes as "an eye-opener, I can tell you; I should come here more often." He is certainly not as coy or reticent about sexual matters as the apparently virginal Bartholomew seems to be. "Your lecherous attentions had that poor Abbess in a terrible quandary," Bartholomew admonishes him.
It turns out that one old nun, Sister Pelagia was not only Michael's grandmother but , even more surprisingly, "one of the greatest and most respected of all the King's agents". It was, Bartholmew realised, "no wonder that spying and subterfuge were so deeply ingrained in Michael - not only was it in his blood, but he had probably been given some expert tuition". As for old Sister Pelagia, it was she who finally disposes of the villain by stabbing him in the back with "a long, thin blade, embedded so deeply that Bartholomew wondered if it had skewered him right through". Then she "stepped out of the undergrowth and came towards them, smiling beatifically".
But, after a time, the story itself gets distinctly tedious - it's another long book - and it becomes quite hard work to plough through all the complicated machinations of a distinctly unlikely plot. It is not helped by the way that similar events seem to occur from book to book, as when Bartholomew is called out on some spurious call only to be ambushed/ knocked on the head/ kidnapped. And the action sequences, although numerous, lack enough reality to make them really exciting, and can sound distinctly corny as when the Countess of Pembroke is in the very act of reaching out for her (poisoned) goblet of wine: " 'No!' yelled Bartholmew, freezing the movements of all and sundry. 'The wine, madam!' Do not touch the wine!' " And, of course, she doesn't.
Then, later on, Bartholmew has to save one of his colleagues who was also about to drink poison. This time he does it, again at the very last moment, by hurling a lemon at him: "The throw went appallingly wide and smashed through one of Michaehouse's newly installed, and much admired windows". It was enough to stop the drinker - but it is not a situation you can take very seriously.
Then there is the unlikely figure of the Vice-Chancellor who "spat" out: "I have worked hard for this University, and I am Vice-Chancellor! (He had wanted to be Chancellor.)The masters voted for that nonentity Tynkell over me. And Tynkell finally dragged himself from the pleasures of the Bishop's palace at Ely today, so there is no real need for me at all. Brother Michael has leached away any powers the Vice-Chancellor might have had, and it is not me Tynkell calls upon when there are important matters to discuss - it is that fat monk. So when the opportunity came to indulge in something a little different, I decided to take advantage of it, and it has made me a wealthy man." It does not sound any too convincing. Even odder is the way that no matter what dreadful things keep happening to him, this evil character seems to keep bobbing back to life again. And the overall plot is still too episodic to be really satisfying.
A Wicked Deed (1999)
The story gets off to an interesting start with an attack by bandits, and the discovery of a strangely well-dressed man hanging from a gibbet, who dies with the name Padfoot on his lips. This turns out to be the name of a mysterious white dog. To see it is a sign that you are about to die, and indeed Cynric, Bartholomew's normally tough and courageous servant, is quite convinced that after seeing it, he too is to die, and it requires magical ceremonies, performed by Bartholmew, to restore his good health.
There are some entertaining, if not entirely convincing characters, such as Eltisley, landlord of a local inn, who seems to be the world's most incompetent inventor, who ends up by blowing it up. It is he who tells Bartholomew, "I am inventing a way to make cows produce more milk. It involves feeding them with water infused with chalk. You see, I reason that if you put a lot of something white into them, you will get a lot of something white out." And It is he who invents a lock for the village privies with the result that Brother William manages to lock himself in, not once but twice.
Eventually it turns out that Eltisley intends to find a way of defeating death by bringing people back to life, and at the end he even holds Bartholomew and Brother Michael prisoner so that he can experiment on them. "I have invented a potion that kills temporarily," he tells them blithely. "Then, at a later date, my other elixir - the one that raises people from the dead - can be taken, and the person can be restored to life at a time of his choosing." No, it's not the world's most likely plot! It all ends with (another) gigantic explosion from which the only three to emerge alive are our three heroes, Bartholomew, Michael and Cynric. But then you knew they could never really be in danger. Similarly, although Bartholomew seems to be repeatedly attacked, it is difficult to take his predicaments too seriously.
The picture of the clergy is far from flattering. The local priest's main aim seems to be to make as much as he can from saying memorial masses, and even Brother Alcote from Michaelhouse is always on the look-out for sources of revenue - indeed he seems to have plans of his own in deliberately delaying the completion of the advowson. As Bartholomew is well aware, "membership of a strong Order like the Franciscans or Dominicans was often seen as the best path to earthly, rather than heavenly, power". And Bartholomew learns from Brother Michael that there are even often hidden gainers when church livings are transferred. But who except Michaelhouse, could gain in this instance?
Brother Michael grows more and more self-confident: "I am getting better at this kind of thing, Matt; I will have no need of your services soon."
There is more (very welcome) humour in this story than in the previous ones, as when Michael is convinced that he has been shot by a crossbow and "dropped to the floor with a howl of pain." Bartholomew "pushed his hand down the front of Michael's gown, anticipating some dreadful injury, but then saw the crossbow bolt embedded in the wall above his head. With a sigh of relief, he sat back on his heels, and rubbed a trembling hand through his hair. Michael regarded him with frightened eyes."Is it a mortal wound?" he whispered.
Although more deaths follow, by halfway through the book the pace seems to slow down and things get more repititive, not helped by pages of conjecture on what might or might not have happened. Then there's a long description of a comic debate between Bartholomew and Brother Michael on whether on not the earth rotates, held for the edification of villagers. This is amusing ("Brother," says Tuddenham, "I have not enjoyed an event as much since last year's muck-spreading competition"), but has little relevance to the plot. Yet, despite the fact that this story is not set against the usual well-drawn Cambridge background, it is one of the most entertaining books in the series so far. But it could still well be shorter.
A Masterly Murder (2000)
Meanwhile at Michaelhouse, to everyone's surprise, the Master announces his retirement - and desperate in-fighting occurs amongst the Fellows as to who should be elected in his place. Even Brother Michael fancies his chances. He "was a man who thrived on intrigue and subterfuge ... Under Michael's Mastership, the College was likely to be the focus of more connivance and treachery than Bartholomew cared to imagine. But the alternatives offered by the others were almost too awful to contemplate." And, as Bartholomew said, Michael "is a good man. Well, most of the time." But his secret dealings with Oxford lead to his disqualification.
Matthew Bartholmew, on the other hand, refuses his chance of being nominated, and they end up by electing the worst of them all: the ruthless Runham. Once in post, he immediately brings about drastic changes, including sacking Brother Michael's remarkably unmusical choir, building a courtyard that the college cannot possibly afford, and demanding that Bartholomew choose between his college teaching and his medical work in the town. Runham's domineering arrogance makes him a formidable figure as he finds ways of dismissing one Fellow after another. Then he is found dead ....
There are some interesting characters too, like the formidable, sharp-toothed Agatha, the laundress, who "unofficially supervised the domestic side of Michaelhouse" and who had been the victim of the dentistry attempts of Matthew's weakest student. The dreadful Adela Tangmer who looks like a horse and seems to live only for them, and then out of the blue suddenly announces her supposed enhagement to Matthew, is more of a caricature. It is she, though, who comes up with the remark (very relevant for anyone trying to park a car in Cambridge today), "Finding somwhere to leave a horse is such a problem in Cambridge".
The far from saintly Brother Michael still holds the interest, being as anbitious and greedy as ever.
The in-fighting between the different colleges, between townspeople and the university, and btween the various monastic orders is well described, and there are entertaining incidents. But it is another very long book and attention wanders. The historical background is convincing but there is not a strong enough plot to sustain interest throughout. And the melodramatic ending is far from convincing.
An Order for Death (2001)
There is plenty here for Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael to investigate - but infortunately they take what seems like a very long time to reach the solution. There is an exciting episode during which Matthew gets taken prisoner (he gets attacked in book after book), but even when the story seems to reach its climax, it does not end. There are pages of explanation, followed by a second climax (in both of them Bartholomew's life is again in danger), followed by more pages of explanation. The pair are described as "a formidable team when it comes to solving murders", and they have some good moments. It is just that you have to wait too long for them to come up.
Another problem is that the (well-researched) description of life in Cambridge at that time seems very familiar from previous books in the series, and some of the characters like the gently mad Dominican John Clippersby, master of music and astronomy at Michaelhouse, start to get rather tedious. Other characters like Bartholomew's foppy nephew Richard seem little more than caricatures. And the way that Matilde, the glamorous leader of the prostitutes, disguises herself as "a plump, crook-backed woman" so that she can stay, unrecognised, with the all-too-obliging nuns of St Radegund's Convent, is hardly convincing. One of the young novices, the beautiful Tysilia is so dim-witted that Bartholomew wonders, "It is just not possible for someone to be that stupid. It must be an act." But it isn't - and she too emerges as little more than a stereotype.
Michael is still in many ways a more real character than (the still virginal) Matthew Bartholomew, as when he contrives to get himself invited to a meal at Matthew's sister's. Lent, he explains, "is a miserable time of year. No meat to be had; church services held at ungodly hours ; gloomy music sung at masses; everyone talking about abstention and fasting and other such nonsense." He can be conceited too as when he tells Bartholomew, "This is the kind of mystery that I am good at solving. I possess a cunning mind and am far better at resolving complex plots than I am at uncovering random acts of violence." Well, this one is certainly complex enough. If only it were not quite so slow moving.
A Summer of Discontent (2002)
The change of setting (Ely instead of Cambridge) makes for variety, and there is rather more humour than in some of the books, as when Brother Michael proudly tells Bartholomew that he can solve the crimes himself: "I have watched you often enough to manage perfectly well alone." We, of course, know better - and, as death follows death, he has to admit: "I have never been quite so much at a loss in a case before."
And the Bishop's "niece", the man-mad Tysilia's attempts to seduce Brother Michael are amusing if not exactly convincing:
Tysilia was "one of the least intelligent people Bartholomew had ever met" and recently had "been foisted ... on the lepers at Barnwell Hospital". But she was not safe even with lepers: "On one occasion, she seized someone in an amorous embrace that relieved him of three fingers and part of his nose." As she explained to Michael, "I did not like being with the lepers, anyway. Their faces kept falling off, so it was difficult for me to remember who was who." This makes her sound more nasty than funny. Indeed her confusion over words is not always all that witty either:
But there are a whole series of interesting characters such as the Librarian Brother Symon who "does not like people reading his books" which he arranges by height, when he does not just leave them in disordered piles where they were "thick with dust and neglect". To keep visitors, like Bartholomew, away, he hides himself in the toilets.
Meanwhile the visiting old Bishop Northbrough is concerned about nothing except his own ill-health: "I am a dying man," he explains. "My heart beats quickly if I exert myself, my limbs are not strong, and my hair is brittle and dry."
The Ely background is well drawn too. It as, as Brother Michael says, "a vile, godforsaken spot. It is a pity St Etheldreda decided to locate her magnificent monastery in a place like this." Many of the places described (or their ruins) can still be visited today, and the author often uses the names of real historical characters that she has found in the records and (rather unscrupulously) involved in her story. There is also an effective description of the shouting match conducted by the vicar of the local church that held its services in the cathedral nave while the monks increased the volume of their chanting in the choir beyond the screen! Such things have been known to happen.
The true life story of the building of the famous Octagon designed by the real-life Alan de Walsingham is well told, although the (twice) collapsing scaffolding in the north-west transept comes from the author's imagination. This transept did collapse in late medieval times (and you can still see where it stood today) but no-one really knows when or how this came about. And the charge of three pennies which Brother Michael is indignant to find is exacted on every pilgrim who wants to visit St Etheldreda's tomb is not wihout its resonances today when a charge is (understandably) made to visit the cathedral.
But the book, like its predecessors, seems overlong, and there are still pages of boring conjecture as when Bartholomew
However, if, unlike me, you are not reading all the books in quick (or as quick as their length will allow!) succession, you may well find much of it both interesting and entertaining. If you have worked your way through the earlier stories, you will find that the same elements recur (Bartholomew is kidnapped again, and Brother Michael is as greedy as ever: "I am large-boned, as I told you before," he tells Bartholmew, "You are far too quick to accuse people of being obese these days"), and the ending, like all the endings, does not seem too probable.
However, there are some exciting moments, as when Michael and Bartholomew pursue a killer inside the Bone House where "the skulls still sat in their eerie rows on shelves, and the dark mass in the pile of long bones could be seen on one side." Then a mysterious figure bursts upon them. He "grabbed a skull and lobbed it towards them. It hit Michael on the shoulder with a hollow crack. then bounced away across the floor. The next one was aimed at the physician's head ..." And meanwhile the building had caught alight. The author is usually better at describing the period setting than producing dramatic action sequences, but in this episode she does both. It is certainly one of her better books.
A Killer in Winter (2003)
There are amusing incidents as when the officious Junior Proctor, Brother William, who has had too much to drink, slips over and shouts out, "My leg. It is broken!"
And amusing too is the Lord of Misrule's insistence that a huge marchpane (marzipan) image of the Virgin Mary be stripped of its cloth covering to reveal "a model of Father William , complete with filthy habit, grimy hands and a tonsure that was irregular, bristly and made from real hair. The sculptor had captured the fanatical gleam of the friar's eyes and the pugilistic pout of his lips ... In one of his hands was a vast purse with the word 'fines' written on it, while the other grasped a book that had ribald songs inscribed on its tiny pages." The Lord of Misrule insists too that, much to everyone's relief, Father William should change his stained and filthy old tunic for a new one. He also retains the services of the Chepe Waits, not the world's most talented entertainers and jugglers, but an interesting motley crew.
Other parts, such as the description of Michael's terrible choir in action, are more familiar from previous books but are still entertaining: "It was time for the chorus. It began with the basses, a grumbling mass of indistinguishable words, which comprised several notes produced simultaneously ... The tenors joined in, although they stopped after a few moments when frantic signalling from Michael indicated they were early. Conversely, the children did not start singing at all, and he was obliged to sing their parts himself until they realised they had missed their cue. To make up for their tardiness they sang more quickly, and had soon outstripped the basses and were surging ahead ..."
Clippesby, the Fellow, is still off his head: "It was part of Clippesby's insanity that he talked to - and received replies from - animals, spirits and even plants. But, as Barthomew pointed out, "The truly frightening thing is that his discussions with animals sometimes make a lot more sense than the ones I have with people."
Background details continue to interest, and there is even a discussion about the depth of latrine pits. Bartholmew had wondered "whether Turke had gone with the recent fashion for a shallower trench that could be emptied regularly, or had opted for a deep one that would be used until full and then sealed."
At first Bartholomew does nor even recognise Philippa who, he is horrified to find, is now "both pear shaped and the owner of several chins". He finds Lady Matilde, the courtesan, much more attractive - and although he tells Michael "there have been other women since Philippa", he goes on leading an appparently chaste life.
The book has a more coherent plot than some of the others, and makes quite entertaining reading. It is only at the end that it sinks under a welter of explanations, including unlikely lengthy conversations with murderous villains, with an incredible conversation between Bartholomew and one of them while they are actually in the process of fighting each other for their lives with a hoe and a pitchfork! As the villain improbably tells him, "You have two choices, physician. We can dodge around like this and I will reduce you to small pieces slowly, or you can stand still and allow me to finish you in a single stroke." Or, of course, you can wait to be rescued - and that, as every reader will know, is what will soon happen.
But poor Bartholomew is threatened all over again by someone else who tells him to "climb into that cellar where I may light a fire to keep you warm".
And there's even a long confession from someone actually in the process of disappearing below the surface of the ice covered river. There's an epilogue too to delay the finish even more. It's a pity that the author finds it necessary to go into quite so much tedious detail at the end, as it's the characterisation and the setting that provide the real interest. Action sequences were never her strongest point.
The Hand of Justice (2004)
The story is slow moving and not all that interesting. As so often, there are long conversations as to what might or might not have happened, then potentially exciting parts such as fight scenes or a dramatic fire seem only briefly described. Indeed even while the fire rages, conversations still continue. "You cannot stand here and chatter like an elderly widow while the town ignites around your ears," the Sheriff tells the Mayor. But he can, even while Gonville College is threatened with imminent destruction. Then, right at the end, the chief murderer, although slowly dying of poison, insists on making a full and frank (and long) confession!
There is a clumsiness in some of the writing too as when an incident involving Bosel the beggar is repeated from the previous book, and Brother William who, we are told, "had once been Michael's Junior Proctor" has been "promoted" to become Keeper of the University Chest by Michael, just to keep him out of his hair. But as William had been Junior Proctor in the previous book that had been set just a couple of months earlier, it sounds odd to hear that he had "once been Michael's Junior Proctor".
As always, the Cambridge background comes to life, as when in an end-of-term Disputatio the scholars of Michaelhouse and Gonville debate on whether or not "A too frequent change in the law is dangerous". It is interesting too that Bartholomew is told off for practising surgery as "it is forbidden for those in holy orders to practise cautery". But, as Bartholomew points out, "I am not bound by the Lateran Councils. I am not a monk or friar." But all this has been explained in previous books. The repitition, as with the insane Clippesby's repeated references to his conversations with animals, is amusing at first but there is just too much of it. Oh for the hand of a rigorous editor!
There is some welcome humour, even if , as with a deaf old servant, it is sometimes a little forced. It was he who "cupped his ear when Michael asked to be allowed in, then informed the monk that he had no wish to become a student, thank you, because Michaelhouse had a reputation for serving small portions at mealtimes.
The sinister elderly Dame Pelagia, Michael's grandmother and, we are told, one of the most trusted of the King's agents, is hovering around, even if she does not seem too likely a character. She is described as "elderly and slight, but her deceptively frail figure concealed a core of steel, a raw and ruthless cunning, and a rather shocking talent for throwing knives."
The most interesting part, which has little to do with the main plot, involves the "long-unwashed" Chancellor Tynkell who was "becoming a figurehead with Michael holding the real power" , and who, Bartholomew suspects, may or may not be a hermaphrodite! Certainly one of Bartholmew's dottier students imagines him to be pregnant. Michael knows the truth of the matter but tells Bartholomew smugly, "My lips are sealed. You will just have to fathom it out for yourself. Suffice to say you will be very surprised." Unfortunately we are never told the answer.
The Mark of a Murderer (2005)
This is a remix of all the usual elements, but with a record number of as many as five attacks on Bartholomew! And he is rescued from one of them by arrows from a three-year-old. As always, the background, such as the description of preparations for the Archbishop's Visitation, and the quarrels between scholars, is more interesting (and more convincing) than the plot.
Bartholomew, we are told, has been visiting Matilde. "the leader and spokeswoman for the town's unofficial guild of prostitutes" (known as the Frail Sisters) for night after night. This seems right out of character - but, as you might guess, there turns out to be a perfectly innocent explanation. By the end of the book, though, he is actually ready to propose to her, even if it means giving up his Fellowship and losing his only real source of income - but, amazingly he does not find time to explain his intentions to her, and so misses his chance!
Michael has been putting on weight: ""Batholomew had noticed that the monk now waddled rather than walked, and that even a short burst of activity left him red-faced and breathless." Eventually he resoved to do something about it and, by the end of the book, "was chewing on a stick in an attempt to assuage the pangs of hunger that racked his portly frame .... He was determined to be slender."
It is not only Chancellor Tynkell whose gender is on doubt, as one of the visiting Oxford scholars turns out to be a woman in disguise. As she tells Bartholomew, "There are no universities for women, and convents are too restrictive .... I am a clear and insightful thinker, and all I ask is that I be allowed to use my intellect - just as a man is allowed to use his." And this she insists on doing whenever they meet up: "I have just been reading Ockham's distinction between kinematic and dynamic problems in relation to inertia," she tells him excitedly when they meet on the street. "But I think he is wrong: where there is resistance, then surely a purely kinematic treatment will suffice?"
One of the Oxford scholars, the aggressive Polmorva, turns out to be an old enemy of Bartholmew's. It is he who, much to Bartholmew's disapproval, had once designed a set of hinged metal teeth that he used to hire out "to edentulous monks so that they could eat the same amount of meat as their fully fanged colleagues". Some of the murder victims had died after being savagely bitten in the throat. Could this be the result of being bitten with specially sharpened metal teeth? Yes, in this book it could! But there is an amusing moment when one of Bartholomew's colleagues tells him, "One day, many ancients may own devices like those, to make their final years more enjoyable."|
Clippesby, who talks to animals and has been sent away to Stourbridge hospital to recover, may or may not be insane, but he seems to understand what is going on better than anyone - but then, of course, he is also an accomplished eavesadropper. He remains an entertaining character, if not a very real one.
It all ends, as usual, with Michael, Bartholmew and several other leading characters, most of them immersed in a cistern and about to drown, engaging in a long conversation with the killer who seems determined to confess everything before they are finally disposed of. It's back to the old formula, complete with absurd ending.
The Tarnished Chalice (2007)
Michael and Bartholomew find that Lincoln is an unholy place where the diminutive bishop seems unable to control the wild behaviour of his clergy. Murders soon occur and there seems some connection with a missing holy chalice - of which more and more copies are eventually found! The part played in all this by an angelic-looking 13 year old chorister defies belief.
The best part of the book, as always, is in the provision of unexpected background details, as when suddenly, during a service in the Gilbertine church, "There was a peculiar whining sound, and a good real of hissing". Then after "more creaks and wails .... a tune of sorts began to emerge." This was the newly introduced organ ("Such objects are best left in taverns where they belong", as one of the appalled visitors from Cambridge put it). The Gilbertines accompanied it with clapping hands, loud sounds from their wooden rattles and very noisy singing, including frequent allelulias! It all sounds very topical.
There's a nice touch too when one of the characters "blew his nose in a piece of linen, and shoved it up his sleeve to use again later. The physician (Bartholomew) looked away revolted." The day of the handkerchief was yet to come!
Also quite entertaining is the description of he "House of Pleasure" run within the Close itself to cater for the not-so-spiritual needs of the clergy. The author explains in her usual Historical Note at the end of the book that "in January 1539, the episcopal register indicates that Gynewell (the Bishop) had twice issued orders asking for women - who ran taverns and encouraged licentious behaviour - to be ejected from the Cathedral Close". Gynewell's name, and those of numerous other characters, have been taken straight from the record books. But that does not make them any more convincing - or the plot any more likely.
To Kill or Cure (2007)
All this makes a much more coherent plot than usual. The story gets off to a good start and holds the interest more successfully than most of the other books. If you only want to read one book in the series, this would be one I would recommend. If you have already worked your way through the previous books, you will find that much of it is already familiar (Michael's remarkably unmusical choir, and his insistence that "I am not fat. I just have big bones," etc. etc.) but, even so, it offers some entertaining reading with rather less lengthy conversations about who might or might not have done it.
A Vein of Deceit (2009)
It is to the college finances that Bartholomew first turns his attention, and he soon discovers that the treasurer, Wynewyk, has been fiddling the books, particularly in regard to goods purchased from some tradesmen in Suffolk. Bartholomew, who had looked upon Wynewyk as an honourable friend, is appalled, but before he can confront him with the evidence of fraud, Wynewyk dies in bizarre and unexplained circumstances.
Brother Michael and Bartholomew, instructed to reclaim the missing funds, discover that the money has become entangled in a legal wrangle over property rights, and that one of the merchants is the husband of the woman who died in labour, along with her unborn child whose birth would have substantially altered the outcome of the dispute. In horror, Bartholomew recognises that her death was most likely murder and that his missing preparation of pennyroyal was probably to blame.
Although other murders follow, and Michael, as Senior Proctor, finds much to challenge him, the book moves along at a very gentle pace and is overlong, and there are sections, particularly when Michael and Bartholomew go off to Haverhill in Suffolk, when it all gets distinctly tedious, not helped along by some unnecessarily lengthy conversations. It is the 15th book in the series and you cannot help feeling that the author is having to repeat herself, and re-use the same plot machinations (as when Bartholomew twice more gets saved from death at the very last minute by the surprise intervention of somebody else).
It is only towards the end when Michael and Bartholomew return to Cambridge that things speed up, and interesting and dramatic action develops - even if it is laid on a little too thickly and is not always completely convincing. What remains effective throughout is the author's feeling for period and use of local colour. There are realistic descriptions of 14th century town and college life, and eccentric characters like Clippesby, the Dominican friar who taught theology and grammar, still entertain. He claims to get messages from cats, frogs and mice, but, as Michael and Bartholomew well know, appears to be perfectly sane when he wants to be - but we've been told all this in previous books. As with most of the other Fellows, the author had taken his name from contemporary college records.
It all ends, unfortunately, with the escape of a wicked villain - which means that yet another book must be on the way. And there's a hint that Bartholomew might yet catch up with his long-missed girl friend Matilde. The series has been an undoubted achievement - but surely there must come a time when all good things come to an end.
|Some of the covers look very similar. And so is the content.|