An Unholy Alliance by Susanna Gregory

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An Unholy Alliance by Susanna Gregory

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An early novel in the Matthew Bartholomew series set in Cambridge in 1350. The book is slow to get going but has good historical atmosphere and a fairly satisfying plot.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 408 Date: June 1997
Publisher: Time Warner Paperbacks
ISBN: 0751519359

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It's 1350 and Cambridge is suffering in the aftermath of the Black Death which killed vast numbers. It isn't only the citizens of the town who have died - there's now a desperate shortage of physicians and Matthew Bartholomew is working hard to train men to take their place. His work is important to him and he's reluctant to become involved when the body of an unknown friar is found in the University chest but has no choice in the matter. The friar is not the only unexplained death in Cambridge, but the local sheriff seems unwilling to investigate the deaths of local prostitutes. Bartholomew is convinced that witchcraft lies behind the murders.

This book was something of a departure for me. I'm a fan of detective stories and particularly of police-procedural novels. I don't usually read books set in a time before the nineteenth century at the earliest, but it was a gift and it would have seemed churlish to refuse.

The historical detail in this book is superb. It's not just the description of the town itself, which is excellent, but the attitudes of the time. What we would now regard as basic hygiene was frowned upon as being strange and possibly heretical. Bleeding was thought to be the best treatment for almost all illnesses and there was even the view that to treat an illness was to interfere with the will of God. The church held considerable sway over the lives of most people even to the extent that church law was separate from common law. Times were changing though and the Black Death which had cut such a swathe through the population had left many people doubting their religion, much as the 2004 tsunami forced many people to doubt the existence of God. Witchcraft was taking a hold.

Unfortunately the historical atmosphere is not matched by the pace of the plot. It is slow, very slow, to get going and I nearly gave up through boredom at one point. On the other hand I found the ending confusing and far too much was packed into far too few pages. I was also not entirely convinced by some of the explanations and one which explained a large part of the mystery seemed so unlikely as to be laughable. There was the germ of a good idea there - the Black Death had decimated the population leaving very few people in certain trades and professions and some would go to incredible lengths to take advantage of this - but it was not well executed.

Having said that I really didn't guess "whodunit" until the name was revealed and because it was revealed quite early I was convinced that a mistake had been made.

Characterisation is good. I warmed to Matthew Bartholomew despite the fact that he seems to have little personal life. He has strong beliefs but they're balanced by human frailties and uncertainties. I was even more taken by Brother Michael, Bartholomew's sidekick, who's a greedy friar with a flexible attitude to religion. The two balance each other out well. The supporting characters are well drawn although the females are a little more flimsy than the males. This is not surprising as the story is set in the university and the church, both of which were male-dominated.

The writing itself is good but not brilliant, with dialogue sometimes being rather stilted and unnatural. I found the chapters rather long - usually over thirty pages - and I thought the book would have benefited from being broken up a little more. It smacked of being written by an academic rather than a writer.

It's not a bad book and I don't regret the time spent reading it, but it's not in the first ranks of either historical or detective fiction. It's not Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose", which is set in a similar period. Bookbag doesn't recommend that you buy the book, but if you lack a better choice at the library and you have an interest in the Middle Ages then the book might be worth taking home with you.

Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew Novels in Chronological Order

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