Monks and murder in the Middle Ages—an irresistible formula! Maybe it’s the mixing of piety and nefarious doings that makes it so attractive. And a reason why this is one of my favourite crime series. It is set in Cambridge in the 14th century, and the detective is Matthew Bartholomew, a young physician who teaches medicine at the College of Michaelhouse, run by the Benedictine monks. His close friend is Brother Michael, the Proctor of Cambridge University and a Benedictine monk (whose appetites are not very monkish). As Proctor, Brother Michael is called upon when there is trouble, and Bartholomew accompanies him as forensic expert.
The Middle Ages in Europe are fascinating—it was a time when science was beginning to move away from superstition to something more like what we know today. By making Bartholomew a physician, Susanna Gregory brings this centre stage. And of course, with this shift came conflict, as those with a vested interest in the old beliefs fought progress.
The author has done extensive research on this period, and paints a vivid picture of how people lived then: the level of detail makes you feel like you’re there. You can almost taste their food (they used to dilute wine with water!). The first book, A Plague on Both Your Houses is the grimmest—it is set towards the end of the Black Plague and the descriptions of the disease are horrific. But the later books are lighter, in spite of rising body counts.
Gregory also uses real people in her book, even though she often puts them through situations—including murdering them!—that are entirely fictional. An afterword at the end of each book explains who they were and what really happened to them.
If you like historical fiction and murder, then I would recommend these books. They are a little heavier than the usual whodunits, but definitely worth the effort. The stories are so absorbing that you barely realize that you’re actually learning quite a lot about England in the Middle Ages.