Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Review: A Plague on Both Your Houses

Knowing of my fascination with medieval sleuths, a friend recommended the Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew by Susanna Gregory.

I began with A Plague on Both Your Houses, listed all over the internet as #1 in the series that is now up to 15 books, even though the book jacket unaccountably calls it the third chronicle. I suspect this book was the third written though the first chronologically, just as The Magician's Nephew is the 6th chronicle of Narnia though the first chronologically. Which makes me wonder how you can have an unchronological chronicle, but perhaps I'm being too logical.

The story takes place in 1348, some two centuries after Brother Cadfael flourished in Shrewsbury and nearly a century before Dame Frevisse roamed Oxfordshire, but only 15 years before Owen Archer will unravel his first mystery in York. Cadfael and Frevisse are monastics; Archer is an retired soldier and apothecary who works closely with a monastery; and Matthew Bartholomew is a physician who lives with monks and friars in a Cambridge college.

Gregory, a police officer before earning a PhD at Cambridge, has skillfully created the richly detailed historical ambience that medieval mystery readers crave. She includes not only descriptions of 14th-century university life, but also gruesome portrayals of what bubonic plague did to the human body, how it destroyed entire villages, and what the young doctor did to try to alleviate his patients' suffering. You can almost smell the piles of rotting corpses waiting to be tipped into the communal pit.

Of course--since this is a mystery--there is moral putrefaction as well: plots, conspiracies, greed, betrayal, all connected to a series of bizarre murders. Unlike many of his confrères, Bartholomew is naïve and very, very good. Like his biblical namesake (aka Nathanael), he is a man "in whom is no guile" (John 1.47). His innocence gets him into all sorts of trouble.

Bartholomew's character is well drawn, and his companions are believable. Conversation, however, is often stilted and professorial ("'There have been other signs, too,' Michael continued after a moment. 'In France, a great pillar of fire was seen over the Palace of the Popes in Avignon. A ball of fire hung over Paris. In Italy, when the plague arrived, it came with a terrible earthquake that sent noxious fumes all over the surrounding country and killed all the crops. Many died from famine as well as the plague.'" To the author's credit, Bartholomew nearly falls asleep listening to Brother Michael drone on.)

Occasionally Gregory seems guilty of anachronism. Though she depicts the general ignorance and superstition underlying 14th-century medical practices, and though she acknowledges that Bartholomew is ahead of his time, his ideas about the causes and treatment of disease sometimes seem unbelievably advanced. The plague is not a punishment from God; leeches are harmful; there is no reason to waste time with horoscopes ... will we discover in a later installment that a time machine has flung Bartholomew back from the Renaissance into the Middle Ages?

This is a complex, tightly plotted book. Trying to get my bearings, I kept returning to page 7, where the eight Fellows of Michaelhouse are briefly described. Eventually I knew everybody well enough to read in a more linear fashion, but then the bodies started to pile up. Gregory helped me out by having Bartholomew stop every now and then to take stock, usually by asking himself a paragraph or two full of questions ("Was it Abigny? Had he come back from wherever he was hiding when he had heard that Bartholomew knew about the [spoiler deleted]? Could it have been Swynford, back from his plague-free haven? Was it Michael, who had reacted so oddly at Augustus's death? Was it William, who had prompted him to look at the bodies in the first place, or Alcote, skulking in his room?" Is it tedious to read so many questions?).

The author also helped by neatly tying off all the loose ends in the final chapter and epilogue, which seemed just a little like cheating--but then if she had followed the novelist's adage Show, don't tell, the book might have become too heavy to lift.

Whether this is the first or the third chronicle, it is an early book in a series that has a lot of devoted fans. A reader who thinks the Matthew Bartholomew books "are simply the best out on the market" (and he's read them all) wrote this in an Amazon customer review: "Admittedly it has taken Ms Gregory 4 novels to really get going and you can almost see the development in the writing skills as you read each one." That's how I felt about the Dame Frevisse novels, with which I eventually fell hopelessly in love. So perhaps, several books from now, I'll be in love with the Bartholomew chronicles too.

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