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by Susanna Gregory
Sphere, June 2009
468 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 1847441106

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Michaelhouse College in Cambridge is beset by problems in the Autumn of 1357 and the responsibility for solving them falls on the shoulders of its resident physician Matthew Bartholomew and the University Proctor, Brother Michael. The college appears to be in a financial crisis, a pair of beautiful silver chalices have been stolen, deadly potions are missing from Bartholomew's store, a pair of malevolent villains are roaming the streets of Cambridge and the Master is attacked. When it is discovered that the College Treasurer, Bartholomew's good friend Wynewyk, has been cooking the books and he then dies in a rather peculiar way shortly afterwards, it is obvious that something very strange has been going on. These developments seem to be connected to a village in Suffolk to which Wynewyk had been making large payments for goods of which there was no sign and which has also been the home of a woman who died in childbirth at the home of Bartholomew's sister Edith - a death which Edith insists is murder. On top of all that Bartholomew is trying to get over the disappearance of his beloved Mathilde.

The is the fifteenth 'Chronicle' of Matthew Bartholomew and it is hard for the new reader to ascertain to what extent each character has featured before. Obviously some - Bartholomew himself, Michael, Edith, Mathilde - are series characters, while others - the various Suffolk gentry - are new to this book. This is not to say that A VEIN OF DECEIT cannot be read as a one-off, but as with most long-running series it will probably mean a great deal more to those who are fans of the previous fourteen books. A medieval physician who uses comparatively advanced methods and thereby draws some suspicion to himself obviously puts one instantly in mind of Cadfael (even if there are over 200 years separating them) and the whole tone of the book is in some ways reminiscent of Ellis Peters. It is probably difficult to remember now, when the medieval mystery market has become so crowded, just how groundbreaking that series was. The template was fairly simple - a fascinating unconventional protagonist, a light but well-sketched historical background, intriguing but generally not very startling or involved plots, a dash of romance and a series cast. This would seem to be the template which Gregory follows and, obviously given the series' longevity, with some degree of success.

Unfortunately A VEIN OF DECEIT has one major defect which seriously undermines it - its length. 468 pages is far, far too long for what is basically a lightweight template; it therefore becomes impossible for Gregory to sustain the interest. The device which she uses to mask this is to pile plot complication upon plot complication - but when it comes down to it these complications are of little interest in themselves and the basic foundation on which they rest is fairly simple. This length also means that pacing becomes a real problem and the reader's attention (well this reader's anyway) is highly likely to drift. This central disfiguring defect is unfortunate because Gregory has obvious virtues - she writes clearly, the historical background is light and she is not overly concerned with the kind of burdensome detail or accuracy which affects some of today's historical mystery writers, her characterisation is enjoyable if simplistic. But these virtues, while commendable in certain circumstances, are simply not of the kind which are useful in sustaining interest and involvement for over 450 pages.

Indeed for the first hundred or so pages A VEIN OF DECEIT is thoroughly enjoyable - a kind of medieval college mystery. But this kind of book simply will not bear the kinds of demands which its wholly disproportionate length places upon it. I doubt very seriously whether even a Cadfael book would have worked at this length and Gregory, while obviously a competent writer, certainly does not have the charm and grace and mastery of pace which Ellis Peters had. At half the length A VEIN OF DECEIT would have been an enjoyable, possibly highly enjoyable, lightweight medieval mystery; at 468 pages it becomes a slog for the reader - and, one suspects, the writer as well.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, October 2009

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