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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mystery in the Minster. Susanna Gregory. Sphere (2011)

A hugely enjoyable, cleverly plotted medieval murder mystery. In 1358 the Cambridge college of Michaelhouse is is dire need of funds so a bequest from the Bishop of York is very welcome. A group travel from Cambridge to York to settle the issue, the bequest is being strongly contested by a group in York. In York Matthew Bartholomew and the other from Cambridge find the city rife with tension from concerns about French spies, conflict with various religious orders as well a mystery surrounding their bequest. After they are directly attacked, Matthew and his friend Brother Michael have to investigate a tangled trail of murder. The reveals are very well staged, the context used to great effect and the conclusion very satisfying.
Susanna Gregory uses the historical context with care and skill to develop and engrossing story that cunningly weaves several plot threads into a clever whole. Critically the context is vital to the story, it is not just a backdrop to a story that could be as easily presented in any time period. The motives and actions of the energetic cast arise naturally from the times and this gives the story anchor. The setting is lightly and effectively supplied in the course of the story, there are no lumpy info dumps to set the scene. York is presented as a active and thriving place, it is also very small, the closeness of a medieval city is nicely explored.
The plot is smart and happily unexpected, it is not forced onto the cast, it arises very naturally. The clever overlapping of the threads of the story are used very effectively and the reveals staged to inform and distract most enjoyably. It is very striking that continuity is used very lightly, for a book that is part of a very long series, it is very successfully self contained and with enough subtle context to satisfy both series and new readers.
The greatest pleasure of the book is the cast, they are bursting with life and vitality. Matthew Bartholomew is happily surrounded by a jostling crowd all of whom demand notice from the reader. There is a easy humour to the writing that makes the conversations spark and gives each member of the cast a sharp individuality. There are no generic monks, nuns or merchants in this book, they fill their robes with flesh, blood and life. A great read.

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