A DEADLY BREW by Susanna Gregory

13 04 2018

Cambridge, winter, 1353

‘And what happened after you brought your ill-gotten gains back here?’ the monk asked, looking from one to the other with eyebrows raised in disapprobation.

‘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.

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AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE by Susanna Gregory

11 03 2017

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew’s shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
‘Matt!’ he gasped. ‘Come out of there!’
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew’s shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
‘What is it?’ breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. ‘It looks like a goat,’ he said.
‘A goat?’ whispered Michael, in disbelief. ‘What is a goat doing here?’
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat’s head nevertheless, atop a human body.

Like the last Matthew Bartholomew story I reviewed here (The Tarnished Challice – six years ago!) An Unholy Alliance is long, and slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse’s teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew’s sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on “Lady Matilde”, a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] ‘How may I help you?’ she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. ‘I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?’
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
‘We have come to give you some information,’ said Bartholomew quickly

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim’s foot.

This circle is the sign of a mysterious “guild”of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people’s helplessness and gullibility?

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.