Book review: A Grave Concern by Susanna Gregory

A Grave Concern bySusanna Gregory
A Grave Concern bySusanna Gregory

Medieval physician Matthew Bartholomew has more than the Devil on his shoulder to contend with as murder most foul returns to the hallowed halls and hostels of Cambridge University.

His best friend will soon be leaving town, his sister is being cheated by a greedy tradesman and a rogue doctor is making people ill rather than helping them to get better.

Twenty-two books in and former police officer turned academic Susanna Gregory’s outstanding and atmospheric 14th century murder mystery series continues to grow in both strength and popularity.

These superb thrillers, steeped in the dangerous politics, religious controversies and vicious scheming of academic life in the Middle Ages, have become cult reading for history and mystery fans.

When the university’s kindly but underwhelming Chancellor Tynkell is found dead after grappling with a black-cloaked assailant on the top of the church tower, rumours abound that his killer was Satan himself. Witnesses swear they saw Tynkell’s opponent escape by spreading his huge wings and soaring away from the tower ‘with the ease of Lucifer.’

Not surprisingly, the down-to-earth Matthew Bartholomew, physician and Corpse Examiner, and his friend and Senior Proctor, Brother Michael, are far from convinced. Tynkell had been stabbed with a small spike thrust into his ribs and they are determined to get to the truth of the murder.

But there are other challenges facing Bartholomew. Many of his patients have been made worse by the ministrations of John Cook, a new barber-surgeon from Nottingham and a man the wily Bartholomew considers inept and untrustworthy.

Meanwhile, Bartholomew’s sister Edith Stanmore is being fleeced by stonemason John Petit, the only craftsman of his kind within 60 miles, who has been commissioned – at a very high price – to build her late husband Oswald’s elaborate tomb.

And if that wasn’t enough, Brother Michael has been offered a bishopric in Kent which will mean saying farewell to Cambridge and to his long-time ally Bartholomew. But eager to leave the university in good order, Michael is determined that the new Chancellor will be a man of his choosing.

As the number of contenders for election threatens to get out of control, there are more mysterious deaths and it seems someone is taking extreme measures to manipulate the competition. With passions running high and a daring killer at large, both Bartholomew and Brother Michael fear the future of the university may now be at stake...

Gregory’s outstanding authentic period detail, fascinating bedrock of historical research, and personal insight into the intellectual manoeuvrings and infighting that have bedevilled university life through the ages, make these books a joy to read.

As always, she fields an eclectic cast of leading players and suspects as Bartholomew and the tireless Brother Michael turn amateur sleuths to find the killer in the cloisters and prevent anarchy in the halls.

Sprinkled with a fine line in wicked wit and featuring a cracking plot packed with superstition, skulduggery and surprises, this is the accomplished Ms Gregory on her very best and most entertaining form.

Also out now in paperback, priced at £8.99, is A Poisonous Plot, The Twenty First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, in which the good doctor faces simmering tensions in the town, a poison murder and torn loyalties between his kin and his college.

(Sphere, hardback, £19.99)