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MYSTERY IN THE MINSTER
by Susanna Gregory
Sphere, August 2011
400 pages
19.99 GBP
ISBN: 1847442978


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

MYSTERY IN THE MINSTER is the seventeenth outing for Matt Bartholomew. This time he is in York with other members of Michaelhouse College, Cambridge, hoping for the legacy of a parish from the late Archbishop Zouche. Opposition to the claim comes from the vicars-choral, deputy secular clergy of York minster and to resolve the issue a search must be made for a missing codicil to Zouche's will. It becomes clear that a surprising number of the executors of this will, including members of the merchant community and the several religious orders in the city, have died over the few years since they were appointed. Matters are resolved in an exciting denouement with further violent deaths, the unveiling of French spies, and a major flood.

Whilst readers of the previous sixteen chronicles in the series are doubtless well-informed about his character, a first-time reader will gather from the occasional comment that Matthew is fairly forward-looking for a 14th-century physician, but not a great deal more. Rather than dwelling on the protagonist himself, the bulk of the book is taken up with interactions between representatives of the several religious and secular communities of the city. These include the vicars-choral of the minster, Bendictines of St Mary's Abbey, Holy Trinity Priory (French owned) and Clemenethorpe (nuns), Franciscans and Carmelites, as well as aristocratic and new merchant secular groups. Relations between some of these communities are strained, and frequent arguments are the result.

It is not necessarily to be expected that 14th-century ecclesiastics would be restrained in their passions; some may find the religious in Ellis Peters' Cadfael stories unrealistically pious. The 14th century church was renowned for abuses, and it aids the dramatic narrative to have open dispute. But it comes as a bit of a surprise to find senior members of major religious houses depicted as squabbling like schoolboys in a playground. A little more subtlety could have been usefully employed to present the various contenders in a more believable manner.

Turning to the detective story at the heart of the plot, there are sufficient murders throughout the book to satisfy the most ardent enthusiast of the genre, with lengthy speculations between Matt and his colleagues about possible culprits and their motivation as each new piece of evidence comes to light. While it is not difficult to spot some of the author's more obvious misdirections, the final revelations come as a complete surprise. Whether they can be regarded as credible is another matter.

Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, November 2011

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