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Friday, January 27, 2017

A Vein of Deceit. Susanna Gregory. Sphere (2009)

A very enjoyable and engaging medieval mystery that comes with a serious warning to readers, before you start the book go to the back and cut of the pages of the Epilogue without reading them. Then destroy them to remove any temptation that you may feel later to read them, doing so will drastically reduce if not actually remove the pleasure you gained in reading this book.  
Cambridge in the autumn of 1357 has arrived with problems for Michaelhouse College and physician Matthew Bartholomew, the College is unexpectedly short of funds, the Master is assaulted, a pair of precious chalices are stolen and a woman dies in premature labour. The death is a concern as Matthew Bartholomew finds that a potion with a known impact of inducing miscarriage is missing from his store. The presence of a very troublesome brother and sister in Cambridge is adding to the tension. With the death of a college staff in very public circumstances Matthew and Brother Michael have to investigate. 
The story is carefully structured, the investigation travels in all sorts of engaging and enjoyable directions, the reveals are cunningly staged and the nicely tangled coils of the plot unfurl in happily unexpected and satisfying ways.The cast are a pleasure to spend time with, it is very impressive that as the lead characters in a long running series both Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael remain engaging and excellent company. They are neither dysfunctional nor fantastically clever, they are competent, thoughtful and deeply concerned, they engage in investigation for solidly grounded reasons and respond to the threats they encounter with plausible reactions.
 The supporting cast is varied and lively, in very short spaces they are introduced and proceed to demand attention from the reader due to their varied and multiple plans, schemes and desires. Susanna Gregory has an exceptional gift for creating a large cast that never become a crowd, they interact with each other without blurring. The walk on parts are as vivid as the leads and this creates a wonderful atmosphere of activity and life in the context.For any historical fiction creating a convincing context is critical, it does not have to be historically accurate, it must fit with the cast and provide information that supports the motivations and actions of the cast. In this book the context is smartly drawn, the very small size of Cambridge, the intensity of theological debate and the fact that differences between social ranks tend to be a bit more fluid in a small and crowded space.
This story mixes superb plot mechanics with a lively cast in a great context and a very welcome spiky humour. Bearing in mind the warning above this is a great fun read, a pleasure.

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