Written by Susanna Gregory — Also known for her 17th century mysteries featuring gentleman spy, Thomas Chalenor, Susanna Gregory also writes about the 14th century investigator, Matthew Bartholomew. A Grave Concern is his 22nd outing – the series began way back in 1996 with A Plague on Both Your Houses. In his latest adventure, Bartholomew will be working alongside the ambitious monk, Brother Michael, as he tackles a satanic mystery.
The book opens with a deathbed scene. The setting is Nottingham, and the year is 1359. John Dallingridge knows his end is near and that his killer is one of the people keeping vigil around his bed. However, he also knows that he doesn’t have enough time left to discover who has poisoned him. Move forward several months, Dallingridge is dead and his tomb being prepared in the church of St Mary the Great, Cambridge. The university witnesses the murder of its chancellor, Tynkell, on the roof of St Mary’s by an assailant who onlookers claim is the devil himself.
Tynkell’s murder leaves Brother Michael with something of a dilemma: who to elect as his successor. It’s a situation that needs to be resolved without delay as he has been offered a Bishopric, which will result in him leaving Cambridge. However, he is less than inspired by the candidates who have put themselves forward, and is determined that the new chancellor will be a man of his choosing. Even if it means giving up the Bishopric and taking on the role himself. The situation is further complicated by more killings and thefts from the grave monuments in several of Cambridge’s churches, which lead Brother Michael and Dr Matthew Bartholomew into a new investigation.
The two lead protagonists are very different men. Brother Michael is very much a career churchman who is keen to climb the ranks and wield power over those who are subordinate to him. He is also happy to manipulate in order to get what he wants, hence his promotion of a candidate he knows he can control. This is evident in his detection style, he’s very much in control of the investigation, even though he works well with Matthew Bartholomew. Essentially, he’s the archetypal cleric of the 14th century. His focus is less on his spiritual obligations and duties, and more on power building and making sure he gets a good meal at every opportunity.
Matthew Bartholomew, a doctor, is a much milder man. He’s more interested in a quiet life where he can teach his students and tend to his patients. The only thing he really takes exception to are the barber surgeons who ply their trade around the university city and generally cause havoc with the wellbeing of his patients. The two work well together as a team, their personalities complement one another, and they do have a solid friendship. While Brother Michael clearly has a deep respect for his friend, its also evident that Bartholomew is happy for the monk to assume responsibility.
As with anything written by Susanna Gregory, A Grave Concern shows not only her understanding of the time period she has chosen to write in, but also her attention to detail in even the smallest aspects. A lot of research has preceded the writing and this is demonstrated in the references to satanism and the politics of the big universities in the 14th century. Anyone with a fascination relating to the machinations of this period in English history will not be disappointed. Nor will fans of Susanna Gregory or Paul Doherty’s The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, which partner a Dominican monk with coroner Sir John Cranston.
Although this series is best read in sequence, and there is the odd bit of back story that anyone new to it won’t be up to speed with, A Grave Concern won’t leave you feeling like there’s a lot to catch up on. The focus is very much on the case at hand and gives you as much information about each of the characters as you need to know, without ever feeling lost. This book is a must for anyone looking for a good historical mystery with a plot full of twists that will keep you guessing all the way through.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars