A Plague on Both Your Houses
by Susanna Gregory
Published by St. Martin's Press
1998, 416 pages
Buy it online
Sick and Twisted
Natural killers -- from starvation and complications of childbirth, to redundant plagues and venereal diseases -- were so abundant during medieval times, that murder must have seemed like a rather superfluous cause of death. Yet there's no shortage of brutal slayings in author Susanna Gregory's Cambridge, England, where we find physician and forensic sleuth Matthew Bartholomew trying, in A Plague on Both Your Houses, to determine who -- or what -- is decimating the university town's population of scholars in 1348.
The allegedly scandalous suicide of Michaelhouse College master Sir John Babington, and his replacement in office by "smug, self-satisfied" Thomas Wilson, saddens young Dr. Bartholomew, who had considered Sir John a friend. But when those events are followed by more killings, an attack on Bartholomew, and the unlikely disappearance of a madman's corpse, the doctor's dolor is replaced by curiosity. And not even stern instructions from the local parish bishop to cover up these mysterious fatalities ("You will hang for treason if you do not comply!") can stop Bartholomew from embarking on his own investigation. Before long, he's tangled into a complicated story that features rioting, widespread deception, and distrust even of his own family, as well as what may be a sinister inter-university conspiracy to undermine Cambridge's reputation -- all while the Black Plague sweeps its malevolent hand across the land.
Gregory (the pseudonym of a Cambridge University fellow and former cop) is expert at creating rich, realistic characters, from the frustrated Bartholomew (a "modern" physician who is repeatedly having to convince uneducated patients that medicine doesn't require the application of leeches or use of folkloric treatments), to the slimy Master Wilson and Gregory Colet, a once-prominent teacher of medicine who seems to have been shell-shocked by all the dead bodies accumulating around him in this novel. She is equally adroit at capturing the atmosphere of England's bubonic plague era:
The cart patrolling the streets collecting the dead became a common sight. Old women who had lost entire families followed it around, offering prayers for the dead in return for money or food. Houses stood empty, and at night, after the curfew bell had rung and the depleted and exhausted patrols of University beadles [guards] and Sheriff's men slept, small bands of vagrants and thieves would loot the homes of the dead and the sick. The thieves soon became bolder, coming in from surrounding villages and even attacking during the daylight hours.
The challenge in reading A Plague on Both Your Houses (or either of Gregory's two other Bartholomew adventures, An Unholy Alliance and A Bone of Contention) is keeping track of its multiple plot twists, its extensive cast of principal figures and bit players, and the motivations of those people who are eventually proved responsible for the corruption and carnage that lie at the heart of this tale. However, the rewards of perseverance are great. Like Candace Robb and P.C. Doherty, Susanna Gregory evokes the Middle Ages with all of its ceremoniousness, salaciousness, and superstitions intact. | February 1999
J. KINGSTON PIERCE is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.