To Kill or Cure

To Kill or Cure by Susanna Gregory. There are two things you can say about the thirteen chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew: they are always about 100 pages too long and they are always well-researched with wickedly complex plots. Bartholomew is a teaching physician in 1350s Cambridge who also treats patients throughout the town. His colleague at Michaelhouse College is Brother Michael, Senior Proctor for the entire University. Michael’s responsibilities include upholding all University rules, settling the many major disputes with citizens of the town and investigating any suspicious deaths among members of the University. Because both men interact frequently with the townspeople as well as scholars, the books have a broader cast of characters and more complexity than others. The University setting allows for many recurring characters such as Michaelhouse’s Master, Ralph de Langelee, its resident dogmatic theologian, Father William, and its bullying housekeeper Agatha. But the setting also means that there will always be character turnover as new students and Fellows arrive and depart. Gregory has the unfortunate habit of having Matthew and Michael repeatedly discuss every clue, question every suspect’s motive and probe every possibility. However, she also has a great ability to weave multiple subplots together and to depict the harsh living conditions for all in the 14th century.

In the latest book, Cambridge is once again on the verge of a major conflict between town and gown, this time over the matter of rents charged by town landlords to scholars in the many local hostels. University statutes have kept rents artificially much lower than prevailing market conditions and the landlords want changes made in their favor. Into this combustible situation comes Richard Arderne, a charlatan, who claims to be a healer possessing a powerful feather that cures all and special knowledge superior to that of the current Cambridge physicians, all of them associated with the University of course. He subtly incites the townspeople in order to gain business. When violent deaths start happening, Matthew and Michael find plenty of suspects both in the town and behind the college walls.

For other HM set in Cambridge, I recommend Catherine Shaw’s The Riddle of the River set in the 1880s and Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death set in the 12th century. Neither of these utilizes the academic setting of the city, but are excellent mysteries on their own.

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