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A plague on both your houses is the first novel in the Matthew Bartholomew by Susanna Gregory, the Bartholomew series now stretches to 15 novels and has been one of my favourites over the last few years. However, I've read them as I've found them in bookshops, libraries and never in a linear manner so I ordered the first two books in the series and plan to read them in the correct order until I get to the fifteenth novel. I am aware that some of the books in the 15 I have read previously but hey reading them with the background information in my mind should make them interesting.
MB is a physician working at the Michaelhouse charter of the University of Cambridge, he is a former field physician during the recent crusades and has been a student at Paris under a more modern Arab physician who advocates cleanliness, treating ailments with drugs and dislikes using such methods as bleeding and detecting how a patient is based on the odour of his urine. MB is in his thirties, tall, good looking, intelligent and resourceful; he is perhaps a little naive and thinks the best of everyone unless proven otherwise. This book introduces him as the main character, though it does not do the classic first book trick of setting up the books by making the character arrive at the place of interest for the first time. In this novel, MB has been a part of the university for a couple of years; he's respected and has taken minor orders to fit better into the house which is a Fransiscan led charterhouse.
In latter books, MB has a stooge in Brother Michael a monk with a large appetite who acts as a foil to MB in his investigations. I was interested in reading how this relationship started and at the start of the novel MB and Michael are acquaintances but not friends.
A plague on both your houses
This book is set in Cambridge beginning in 1344, the country is being ravaged by the plague and the town and university are being decimated by the death of many of it's people. However, the story isn't about plague victims it is about the suspect deaths of three of the university fellows all apparently by poison. This is a strange way to kill and through it MB is asked to investigate the deaths and try to find the murderer.
The book starts off with a bit of a bang with a couple of suspicious deaths and plenty inter-college and university and town intrigue adding in the terror that the plague brings to the area and you have an environment conducive to suspicion, intrigue and good old plain evil doing. The college fellows have all died by the same hand and have the traces of a caustic poison on their lips and tongues, as the college physician is also a suspect in some eyes especially Brother Matthew who starts to believe the physician is the only one with access to the poisons used.
In the middle third of the novel, everything slows down somewhat and there is a sense that the author wanted to examine the terror the plague inflicted on the populace, we are given rather pointed examples of the effect of the reduced work force and a shift in power politics due to a lack of hands. There are convenient deaths of a couple of prime suspects from the plague and a shifting of Brother Matthew from adversary to friend.
The book ends in a satisfying manner, the killer is unearthed and MB and Brother Michael have become colleagues in arms. The author establishes MB as a thinking intelligent 14th century physician who is perhaps a little too perceptive for a man of the times, however, the dirt and grittiness of medieval England is well structured and we have a better insight into the reality of life in those times when compared with the more rose tinted novels by Phillippa Gregory or Ellis Peters.
Susanna Gregory with this first novel sets out her position as the closest thing to a successor of Ellis Peters, and without perhaps hitting the literary heights shows by Ellis we are at least in a similar mode of books with a murder investigating physician in a clerical setting.
A decent start but the writing does improve in latter books, as with all Susanna Gregory the characters MB meets are based loosely on real people mentioned in the official records at the time. The only quibble is the title as yes there is a plague but I can't see how two houses fits into the title, I know it's a quote from Romeo and Juliet and presume that the plague reference is the sole reason.
In the tradition of Ellis Peters, A Plague on Both Your Houses introduces the physician Matthew Bartholomew, whose unorthodox but effective treatment of his patients frequently draws accusations of heresy from his more traditional colleagues. Besides his practice, Bartholomew is teacher of Medicine at Michaelhouse, part of the fledgling University of Cambridge. In 1348, the inhabitants of Cambridge live under the shadow of a terrible pestilence that has ravaged Europe and is travelling relentlessly eastward towards England. Bartholomew, however, is distracted by the sudden and inexplicable death of the Master of Michaelhouse - a death the University authorities do not want investigated. When three more scholars die in mysterious circumstances, Bartholomew defies the University and begins his own enquiry. His pursuit for the truth leads him into a complex tangle of lies and intrigue that causes him to question the innocence of his closest friends, and even his family. And then the Black Death finally arrives and Bartholomew is dragged deeper and deeper into a quagmire which threatens not only his life, but the continued existence of the University and the future of the town.