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Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Plague on Both Your Houses. Susanna Gregory. Sphere (1996)

A very enjoyable medieval murder mystery, very smart plot mechanics and a thoroughly engaging cast. 1348 in Cambridge and the college of Michaelhouse is under pressure, the Master of the college has committed suicide under very disreputable circumstances. The new Master is a divisive figure and with a second murder in the college the rumours of plans by the University of Oxford to try and fatally undermine the much newer University at Cambridge tension is escalating. Caught up in the trouble is Matthew Bartholowmew, teacher of medicine at Michaelhouse and friend of the dead Master. Bartholomew is deeply unhappy with the official explanations for the deaths and investigates further, and finds that his life is coming under threat. When the Black Death arrives at Cambridge the situation becomes significantly more personal and more complicated. The reveals are very well staged, the plot is constructed with considerable care and attention to detail and the final unraveling is excellent.
A key question that any historical crime story has to answer is the relationship between the plot and the context. Could the story be easily removed from its context and placed in another without damaging it? In this case the context is vital to the success of the story, the motives are, happily , universal and well grounded in human behavior, the way that they play out are stitched nicely into the context.
Matthew Batholomew, trained in medicine by an Arab teacher in France has ideas that are far from mainstream medicine as it was practiced at the time , this bred suspicion balanced against a grudging acceptance that his patients had a better survival rate than others. This makes Batholomew somewhat of an outsider before the story starts and his investigation both uses this as an asset and allows it create problems for him. The impact of the Black Death on a society that naturally reached for a religious explanation for every natural event allied to the sheer impotence of medicine in the face of it is used with skill to complicate and cover the plot mechanics.
The cast are happily cranky, engaging and vigorous, the conflict between town and gown as well as between the various religious orders is well developed. The reveals nicely move suspicion about and the plot threads overlap and cross each other to keep the action moving. With multiple suspects, a slippery set of explanations that add to the possibilities and the devastating pressure of the Black Death  complicating everything this is a greatly enjoyable variation on the great tradition of English village murder stories.

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