Book review: Mystery in the Minster by Susanna Gregory

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Shady cloisters, wood-panelled Cambridge colleges, warring clerics... and murder most foul.

The seventeenth book in the lively and atmospheric Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles is on the shelves and the 14th century physician and university lecturer is up to his eyes in skulduggery again.

If Philippa Gregory is the mistress of all that is Tudor, then Susanna Gregory is surely the queen of the medieval mystery.

Her intelligent historical novels – whether the Bartholomew Chronicles or the Thomas Chaloner series set in Restoration London – allow fact and fiction to rub shoulders with delicate and delightful precision.

Packed with authentic period detail, the raw realities of life in the Middle Ages, a gallery of charismatic and credible characters and plots that combine drama and politics, Gregory’s stories teem with action, suspense and a wicked brand of wit.

In 1358 the fledging college of Michaelhouse in Cambridge is badly in need of extra funds to keep it afloat.

Six years ago William Zouche, the late, lamented Archbishop of York, bequeathed the college a small church in the village of Huntington, north of the city, to help its ongoing battle with poverty.

However, York Minster’s greedy horde of vicars-choral has made a separate claim to its ownership and it seems the only way to settle the dispute is for a deputation from Michaelhouse to travel north.

Matthew Bartholomew is among the small party which arrives in the rapidly expanding city where the increasing wealth of the merchants is unsettling the established order and where a French invasion is an ever-present threat to its port.

The clamour of the bustling streets and the splendour of the architecture of buildings like the massive St Leonard’s Hospital with its innovative red-tiled roof seem just another example of the city’s excesses.

Bartholomew and his colleagues soon learn that several of the Archbishop’s executors have died in unexplained circumstances and that the codicil naming Michaelhouse as a beneficiary has disappeared.

As they frantically search for the missing document, they must evade hidden forces which are desperate to keep the college from its legacy.

But even the elements are against them as a storm of biblical proportions is unleashed over York...

With its focus on a city on the cusp of change, the bitter religious rivalries of medieval England and a licentious prioress who almost steals the show, Mystery in the Minster sees Gregory on top form.

(Sphere, hardback, £19.99)