And so to the last of the major historical mystery novelists that are currently in my firing line – Susanna Gregory. She has written, to date, seventeen novels featuring Matthew Bartholomew, set in 14th century Cambridge and six featuring Thomas Chaloner, set in Restoration London. A Plague On Both Your Houses is the first of the Bartholomew mysteries.
Bartholomew is, in this book at least, a fellow of medicine at Michaelhouse College, Cambridge, which is quite handy as the Black Death is on the way. Before it can get there though, the Master of the college apparently commits suicide and before you can barely blink, another three members of the college are dead, these most definitely murdered. As investigations continue, it becomes apparent that the deaths are tied into a plot by Oxford University (Yay!) to undermine and bring down Cambridge University (Boo!). [NB Can you guess where I went?] But can Bartholomew sort out who is up to what and stop it in time? And have I found another author to line my bulging shelves of historical whodunnits?
Well, the last question is easier to answer. No, I’m afraid. I just couldn’t get into this book at all. The opening third seems to go all over the place with people refusing to accept basic facts and apply a bit of logic to the situation – the new Master, for example, insists that someone who had been declared dead basically wasn’t, killed some people and then vanished into thin air. While the mystery of the vanishing corpse could have been interesting, when it finally turns up, no-one seems particularly curious where is has been (or why it hasn’t completely decomposed as the book is set over a period of months).
Once the plague turns up, the book gets more interesting and settles down and maintains some healthy plot development while dealing with the effects of the pestilence, but when it gets to the conclusion, logic flies out the window again.
The overall evil plan by the villains of the piece is extremely complicated – overly so, in my opinion. Maybe I was tired when reading the conclusion (although I have re-read bits of it) but I’m still not 100% sure what the point of the plot was. As for the murderer… never have I wanted to spoil a mystery more than to point out something absolutely ludicrous, but it would give the game away as to the main killer. If you’ve read the book, hopefully you know what I’m referring to. If not… it’s almost worth reading the book to see what I mean.
My other main gripe – actually, maybe it is my main one – is that Bartholomew doesn’t really detect anything. The only time you see him use his brain is when he is working out what the villains are up to AFTER they’ve happily announced that they are going to kill him after leaving him in an escapable room. That’s right – he doesn’t solve anything, just goes from one encounter to another until the bad guys announce that they’ve got a bit bored with him and shall kill him after all.
Is this just one of those difficult first novels? If it is, it’s the weakest that I’ve come across in a while. I think if (and if Santa hasn’t picked one of these off the Christmas list, then it’s a big if) I return to the series, then I’ll ignore my “read a series in order” rule and skip to a later one. But with Peter Tremayne, Alys Clare, Michael Jecks and Paul Doherty out there, I think it’s doubtful that I’ll be back soon.