The Habit of Murder

Written by Susanna Gregory
Review by Lynn Guest

1360, Cambridge. Michaelhouse is facing bankruptcy when word comes that the wealthy Lady of Clare has died and a hinted-at legacy could save the College. Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael hurry to Clare for the funeral. On arrival, they learn that the Lady still lives but Clare is a troubled place. Dangerous conflict simmers between the castle and the townspeople over expensive renovations to the parish church. The Lady’s arrogance combined with the rowdiness of her squires has provoked near rebellion among the townsfolk. This unrest is being stirred up by the anchoress, Anne, walled up in the church as punishment for performing abortions on local women. An unusual anchorite, Anne lives in comfort dispensing advice and gossip with unholy zeal. In addition, there is a series of unexplained deaths: accidents or murder? If Matthew and Michael can solve that problem the Lady will reward them with 100 marks, saving Michaelhouse.

This is the twenty-third of the popular Matthew Bartholomew crime series. Matthew is a pleasant if unexciting hero rather overshadowed on the page by the cleverer Michael. However, the most fascinating aspect of this novel is that every person except Matthew is an historical figure, mentioned in town records, the Lady’s will or Cambridge documents. This gives the lively people of Cambridge and Clare a medieval flavour which is lacking in the rather colourless narrative. Despite Gregory’s obvious knowledge of her period, the novel has a very modern feel, amplified by the running debate on the morality of abortion as opposed to its practicality for the Clare women. Nevertheless, the plot moves along and the murders’ solutions are cleverly set up.