Cambridge, winter, 1353
‘Brother Armel was carrying one of the bottles. When we arrived …’
Xavier faltered, gazing down at his feet, and the red-haired student took up the story. ‘Brother Armel opened his bottle, took a great swig and …’
‘And what?’ prompted Michael.
As one, the novice Franciscans looked to where Armel lay on the floor. Xavier gave a sudden sob, loud in the otherwise silent room.
‘He staggered for a moment,’ continued the red-haired student unsteadily. ‘Then he grabbed at his throat and fell to the floor. We thought he was playing the fool, so we ignored him at first. Then we tried to rouse him, but it did no good.’ He swallowed hard. ‘Brother Henry said he would fetch Father Yvo, but Xavier said we needed the Proctors because Armel had been …’
‘Poisoned,’ finished Xavier in a whisper, as the red-haired student failed to utter the dreaded word. One or two of the novices crossed themselves and all eyes were, once again, fixed on the prone figure on the floor …
A petty thief breaks into spmeone’s cellar and steals a case of fine French wine – twelve bottles of claret that he proceeds to sell to students and apprentices. Then the deaths begin, because somehow the bottles contain a deadly poison.
But one of those who dies is the scholar James Grene, unsuccessful candidate for the post of Master of the College of Valence Marie, who drinks the poisoned wine during the feast celebrating the inauguration of his rival, Thomas Brigham. Why? Was this pure chance, or had he been given that wine purposely?
Meanwhile, smuggling is on the increase. The Fens, which stretch from Cambridge to the sea, are a flat wasteland of pools and streams and marshes and bogs that have always been a haven for smugglers, but now it seems a new and greedier gang is operating in the area. Was the poisoned wine brought in by them?
Matthew Bartholomew, who teaches medicine at Michaelhouse, and Brother Michael, the Benedictine monk who is Senior Proctor of the university, do not know where to turn. Then they are summoned to nearby Ely, the cathedral city of the fens, by the bishop, and have no choice but to go, though several people warn them that the message might not be genuine and they might be walking into a trap.
The fact that they do not listen is typical of Matthew and Michael. They are both, especially the “hero” of the series, Matthew, unbelievably obtuse and slow in the uptake. It struck me repeatedly while I was reading this story that it is like having two Watsons and no Holmes. A typical example of Matthew in action is when Julianna warns them that she has overheard a plot to murder them both that night. This is at the Convent of Denny, where they have taken refuge. Neither of them pays any attention to her, depite that fact that they have been ambushed on the road to Ely and escaped by the skin of their teeth and that somebody obviously wants to kill them. During the night, Matthew wakes to find Michael’s bed empty. He foolishly suspects that Michael is meeting Julianna in the orchard. He goes there and finds Michael talking to an elderly nun called Dame Pelagia, who, it turns out, is Michael’s grandmother. While they are out there, the part of the convent where they have been sleeping goes up in flames. Do they thank Julianna and apologise for not believing her? On the contrary. And when Matthew, Michael, Julianna and Pelagia flee from the convent and are attacked again on the road and Julianna saves Matthew’s life by hitting his assailant on the head with a stone, does he thank her? No, he seems to thinks she should be charged with murder! His attitude to everyone and everything, even his friend – yes, friend – Mathilde, the prostitute – is amazing in its combination of naiveté and arrogance.
These are wonderful books if you want to feel at home in 14th-century Cambridge, see life as it happens in the colleges and the town from day to day. But do not expect any clever investigations from the least talented and most reluctant sleuth in detective fiction.