MURDER THROUGH THE AGES Edited by Maxim Jakubowski (Review)

As my father was away fighting for King Ethelred (whom men call Unready, or of evil council), it was my brother, Oslac, who took charge the next day when the foul murder was discovered. The people look to the son of their thegn for leadership – and Oslac is seventeen years of age, a man in the eyes of most, though I would that my brother were of stronger character. I, his sister Ymma, am wiser in the ways of men.
‘The Danes came among us in the night,’ Father Ordulf announced. His voice was unsteady and I thought him close to tears. ‘They killed a brother of the Abbey who arrived in our village after darkness. They killed him in the crypt while he was praying before the relic of our saint.’
‘The Danes arrived, killed the unfortunate brother and then departed leaving the rest of us unharmed?’ I heard myself saying in disbelief. ‘Did they steal from the church?’
The priest turned towards me and regarded me with sad brown eyes. I knew Father Ordulf well. He had taught me to read and write and this I did now as well as any holy brother. ‘I speak the truth, Lady Ymma. They departed without harming the village for which I thank God. But they stole from our church.’
‘What did they take?’ I asked. I glanced at my brother Oslac who was staring at me resentfully. But someone had to ask the questions and I knew that he was not man enough to do the task himself.
Father Ordulf shook his head, close to tears. ‘They took fourteen shillings in alms and tithes and a silver chalice.’ He looked at me nervously. I knew there was something else. ‘Andf our holy relic … St Wulfgar’s finger.’

An anthology of historical mysteries that I first read years ago and re-read during the holiday. I had forgotten many of the stories and it was as if I was reading them for the first time, while the ones I did remember (like The Fury of the Northmen by Kate Ellis – see the extract above) I enjoyed all over again.

The anthology focuses entirely on murder, and the stories were chosen by Maxim Jakubowski – an expert if ever there was one.

In my favourite Medieval Period, the tales range from Peter Tremayne’s Who Stole the Fish? (Ireland, AD 664), in which Sister Fidelma investigates the disappearance of a large salmon from the monastery kitchen (along with the brother who was cooking it, but no one seems to care about him), to Paul Docherty’s Id Quod Clarum (Oxford, 1441), in which the obnoxious professor of theology collapses and dies of henbane or belladonna poisoning while delivering a lecture.

Of the stories set between these two dates, apart from Kate Ellis’ The Fury of the Northmen (South coast of Devon, Britain, AD 997) where we see a young woman take the lead in unearthing the true facts of a killing in a male-dominated Saxon village, there is Susanna Gregory’s The Trebuchet Murder (Cambridge, 1380) in which yet another obnoxious professor of theology is the victim. (I am beginning to wonder whether it is characteristic of medieval mystery writers that they once studied theology and fantasise about murdering the professor? )

Then there is a longer story, Raven Feeder by Manda Scott (Orkney/Norway, AD 999), which I particularly liked. Its theme is the clash between the old religion of Odin, Thor and Freya, and the religion of the White Christ which was being imposed on all and sundry by the brutal Olaf Trygvason, King of Norway. Excellently imagined and written.

Finally, I must draw attention to two wonderful stories which are set around 3000 years ago. First. Amy Myers’ Who Killed Dido? (Carthage, 10th Century BC) – the culprit is one of the gods, and the investigator Aphrodite, the goddess of love herself! Then there is Investigating the Silvius Boys by Lindsey Davis (of Falco fame), in which the victim is Remus and the “perp” his brother Romulus; brother against brother – “one of the oldest crimes in the world,” as she says herself on the first page of the story. (I’m not giving anything away.)

A great collection.

A DEADLY BREW by Susanna Gregory (Review)

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.

AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE by Susanna Gregory (Review)

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 (A Deadly Brew) 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.

A CONSPIRACY OF VIOLENCE by Susanna Gregory (Review)

We are in London, and the year this time is 1662. Which is to say, shortly after the Restoration. No one trusts anyone, not his neighbours, not his servants, not even members of his own family.

The Royalists are insecure and incompetent, and for the most part intent only on enjoying their new status. Some of them had all too obviously been playing a double game under Cromwell and the Commonwealth; as, it is now becoming clear, had some of the supporters of Cromwell –  just in case the monarchy was ever restored. Of course, everyone now claims to support the King and to have been against the execution of his father, Charles I, but how many of them are telling the truth? And how many are involved in plots to restore the Commonwealth and make sure the King’s return is a temporary interlude?

Caught up in this turmoil is our hero, Thomas Chaloner, who was for ten years a Commonwealth agent stationed in Holland where he learnt the language, had a Dutch girlfriend, Metje, and began to feel at home. Then, with the Restoration, Cromwell’s Secretary of State (and spy-master) John Thurloe fell from power, and Thomas, back in London and unemployed, is trying without much hope of success to gain employment under the new government.

Then, when the situation is desperate and Thomas has reached rock bottom, Buckingham employs him to find a cache of treasure hidden somewhere in the Tower by a fleeing regicide (one of those who had put their name to the warrant for the execution of Charles I).

Thomas soon learns that his predecessor in Buckingham’s service had been murdered. Buckingham, however, does not want that investigated. Why not? Then it turns out that not just one of his predecessors but a whole series of them came to an untimely end!

Is there anyone Thomas can trust? Certainly none of the men. Even Thurloe has not been telling the truth.

Then can he trust one of the four women involved? Apart from Lady Castlemain, the King’s mistress, who means nothing to Thomas (though he does get to see her naked at one point – life at the palace is very free –

Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland
Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland

Some of the King’s celebrations are very wild, and his barons copulate everywhere – with any woman who possesses the requisite body parts, usually” – one reason why many people would like to see the return of the Commonwealth), there is Metje, his Dutch girlfriend, now living in London and employed by a puritan family but slipping out to spend her nights with Thomas. There is Temperance, daughter of that same family, who is obviously in love with Thomas, and jealous of Metje. And there is Sarah, sister of John Thurloe, and very unhappily married, who kills a man to save Thomas’ life. He trusts Metje most (though not enough to tell her his secrets); he does not take young Temperance seriously; and he finds himself and Sarah Thurloe thrown more and more together.

Never a dull moment, as Thomas narrowly escapes with his life again and again (he is even attacked – twice! – by the King’s mad lion – a male named Sonja), and, en passant, you learn a lot of history (as always in good HF): for instance, I had never understood the importance of Holland, as an ally under the Commonwealth, and as a potential threat under the new royalist regime, and what is must have been like for Dutch people caught in London when the political pendulum swung and suddenly they were looked on as enemies.

This is “Chaloner’s First Exploit in Restoration London” according to the front cover. I shall definitely be looking for the others.