A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susanna Gregory
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A Plague On Both Your Houses is the first in a very long series of novels set in 12th century Cambridge, in the infancy of the university there. Matthew Bartholomew is a university doctor with slightly unconventional views such as the importance of cleanliness and working with poor people. He is a Fellow at Michaelhouse, one of the university’s colleges, at a time when the university is divided between the colleges (own their own land etc) and the hostels (similar to colleges but not quite as formal and in rented houses). There is a spate of suspicious deaths in the university and Bartholomew is drawn into it. At the same time the Black Death is approaching. So the book is part extremely knotty mystery, with many different suspects and events and part story about how Bartholomew and the town itself handles the plague when it hits, I found those bits to be particularly fascinating. I liked the mystery bit too, the solution wasn’t too obvious, so I was happy to be kept guessing, although, like I say, it was so knotty that quite a few chapters at the end had to be pretty much devoted to character exposition as to what actually happened with added help of a villain who just had to tell their victims everything before they tried to dispatch them. Still, I liked it and I am rather happy to find a ‘new’ historical mystery series to get my teeth into.
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My creative inspiration from this book came from the loving descriptions of the food. I think it can be easy for us to forget that this present period of time where the majority of us (at least in developed countries) can just pop into the supermarket and come out with any number of different types of food that would have astounded the characters in the Matthew Bartholomew books, that this period of plenty is a relatively short one compared to the total span of time that humans have existed. In the Matthew Bartholomew books, particularly with the effects of the plague, food is in short supply and is often of poor quality, so when the characters get a chance to eat something good, they really appreciate it. In A Plague on Both Your Houses, Matthew and his friend Michael get a chance (in between fighting crime) to sit down in the college kitchen and eat a plate of freshly made oatcakes and just that description of how nice they were and how appreciated they were, made me really want oatcakes. Anyway, I’m not sure if my oatcakes from a recipe from Lorraine Pascale, with added parmesan and thyme, are quite what the indomitable Agatha (the servant who rules the kitchen at Michaelhouse) would have made, I’m guessing she would have had thyme growing in the college’s kitchen garden but I’m not sure she could have got her hands on some parmesan, so these are very loosely inspired but ooh they are nice.