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Thursday 10 October 2013
‘Murder by the Book’ by Susanna Gregory
The prologue opens 1n 1356 at the Battle of Poitiers, when new devastating weapons cause carnage amongst the French troops. It switches to Cambridge in 1358, where a venomous dispute is being waged by the masters of the colleges, who have to vote whether to allow the foundation of a new common library, which would allow poorer students access to important sources of learning. This turns into a physical dispute when a book is thrown and strikes Coslaye, the Principal of Batayl Hostel on the head, seriously injuring him.
Matthew Bartholomew, physician and doctor of medicine at the College of Michaelhouse, uses his considerable skill to save Coslaye's life, but still the bitter controversy continues, even after the vote narrowly decides that the Common Library should be built. Matthew had voted in favour of the Common Library, in defiance of the wishes of the Senior Proctor, Matthew's friend, Brother Michael. However Matthew is fortunate because Michael does not withdraw his friendship. Many others who voted against the commands of their Colleges find themselves isolated and almost outlawed by their colleagues.
It is while tension in Cambridge is very high that people start dying, murdered, and Michael as Senior Proctor, Matthew as Corpse Examiner and Sheriff Tulyet have to find out who has killed them and why. In a hotbed of cruel academic rivalry and covetousness, where many learned men are combining together in secretive groups to work on different branches of alchemy, it is hard to pinpoint the reason for the violence. Did the men die because they voted for the Common Library? Or was it connected with the alchemists' work? Matthew finds his life threatened by unknown enemies and cannot tell if it is because of his support for the Common Library or because he and his colleagues once, accidentally, created wildfire, a fire that could be used as a terrible weapon because it cannot be quenched by usual means and sticks to its victims.
To make matters even more confusing, Dame Pelagia, Brother Michael's grandmother arrives in Cambridge. Dame Pelagia is one of the King's spies, a ruthless and clever woman. Although she claims that she is now retired, nobody believes that her arrival at this time is just a chance visit to 'her favourite grandson.' With Pelagia's arrival the stakes get even higher and the death toll continues to mount.
Murder by the Book is the eighteenth chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew. It is a dark, historically fascinating book with a complex plot. It is a fascinating read and Matthew Bartholomew stands out as a man of great integrity and intellectual curiosity in a cruel and censorious world.
Reviewer: Carol Westron
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher. She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, published July 2013.