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by Susanna Gregory
Sphere, June 2012
440 pages
19.99 GBP
ISBN: 184744296X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It must come as a surprise to followers of physician Matthew Bartholomew that the University of Cambridge ever managed to survive to become the present giant of further education given the murderous nature of its fractious early inhabitants.

In this 18th mystery, Bartholomew, the 14th century corpse examiner-cum-sleuth, and his friends, Senior Proctor Brother Michael and the superstitious Welsh former man-at-arms Cynric, bodies mount up thick and fast as Scholars, Fellows and monks alike all meet a series of apparently inexplicable and possibly linked deaths. The apparent cause appears to be a bold plan to create a common library for the university, so scholars at the poorer hostels can share the same learning facilities as their richer brothers. Feelings run high and insults and blows fly as the dispute threatens to boil over to exacerbate already strained relationships between town and gown. But is this enough to precipitate a spate of killings?

What is even more surprising is that Gregory, normally historically impeccable, and who has done so much to bring the period to life, has made errors in her prologue which sets out the basis of the plot on which the whole book rests. The battle of Poitiers (1356) in which the Black Prince defeated and captured King John of France was primarily an infantry battle. The English were dismounted and dug in, and the French only used horses at the very beginning and in the final stages. There is no evidence Prince Edward deployed ribalds, ribbadequins, ribaldici, a sort of multiple rocket launcher, bombards or any form of artillery, or even had any with his small army, but his father Edward III certainly did at Crecy ten years earlier.

Aside from the matter of artistic licence, for most readers who know little about Poitiers, except that the English won, this book, like its predecessors, is a cracking read. All the old favourites make their appearance, Langelee the tough and earthy Master of Michaelhouse, Richard Tulyet, the hard-pressed sheriff of the town and the redoubtable Dame Pelagia, Brother Michael's grandmother and knife throwing master spy for England's king, Edward III. The rest of the cast, many named after real people, are skilfully drawn as is the background of overblown disputes in the rarified atmosphere of higher learning.

Bartholomew and Brother Michael eventually muddle their way through a bewildering series of clues to solve the murders and bring the various perpetrators to book, save the king's taxes and foil a French plot to revenge their devastating defeat by stealing both the formula for a lost weapon of mass destruction and the medieval means for delivering it.

MURDER BY THE BOOK is complicated and interesting enough to keep the mind focussed, yet surprisingly fast-paced and entertaining. Like the earlier books in the series, Gregory brings 14th century Cambridge to a rugged and sometimes quite unpleasant life to create a most enjoyable, although quite demanding read. But if Matthew is to carry on his investigations, she is going to have to cut down the body count before she depopulates the university!

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, July 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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