Book review: The Habit of Murder by Susanna Gregory

The Habit of Murder by Susanna Gregory
The Habit of Murder by Susanna Gregory

A college deputation to a small town in the Suffolk countryside proves deadly for medieval sleuth and physician Matthew Bartholomew.

Embroiled in a dispute between a wealthy Cambridge university beneficiary and angry locals, the quick-thinking doctor will need to use his celebrated wits and brain to halt a murderous spree.

The Habit of Murder is former police officer turned academic and author Susanna Gregory’s amazing 23rd outing with her much-loved, doughty detective and this outstanding and atmospheric 14th century murder mystery series continues to delight her adoring fans.

These superb stories are steeped in the dangerous politics, religious controversies and vicious scheming of academic life in the Middle Ages, and all feature real characters, plucked from their dusty obscurity by Gregory’s extensive historical research.

And it is this outstanding authentic period detail – allied to the author’s personal insight into the intellectual manoeuvring and infighting that have bedevilled university life through the centuries – that make these books such a joy to read.

In 1360, Matthew Bartholomew is among a group from Michaelhouse at Cambridge heading off to the Suffolk town of Clare in the hope that the castle’s recently deceased owner Elizabeth de Burgh has left a legacy to fill the depleted college coffers.

But when they arrive, they are shocked to discover that the report of her death is false and that the college now seems destined for bankruptcy.

Determined to see if some of the town’s well-heeled citizens can be persuaded to sponsor Michaelhouse instead, Bartholomew, his good friend Brother Michael, the college’s portly Senior Proctor, and college Master Ralph de Langelee, quickly become caught up in turbulent local politics.

It seems a great many people in Clare have recently met untimely deaths. These killings, combined with the snobbish arrogance of Lady de Burgh over the expensive refurbishment of the church and the grotesque behaviour of some of her entourage, have created a dangerous restlessness in the town… an atmosphere intensified when yet more murders take place.

One of the victims is a fellow traveller of the Michaelhouse contingent, and Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael feel honour bound to identify his killer. It is a hunt which takes them deep into Clare’s murky foundations and which threatens their own survival as well as that of their beloved college.

Gregory, creator of the Thomas Chaloner series of mysteries set in Restoration London as well as the Matthew Bartholomew books, fields her trademark cast of leading players and suspects as Bartholomew and the tireless Brother Michael turn amateur sleuths to find the Clare killer.

Fact and fiction rub shoulders seamlessly once again in an absorbing story of scheming, rivalry, betrayal and revenge that combines action, suspense and skulduggery with Gregory’s gloriously wicked brand of wit.

History, mystery and entertainment in perfect harmony…

Also out now in paperback, priced at £8.99, is A Grave Concern, the Twenty Second Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, in which Bartholomew and Brother Michael must track down a bold killer to save the university.

(Sceptre, hardback, £19.99)