Friday, January 15, 2010

To Kill or Cure

How does a doctor expose a snake-oil salesman when the most skilled physician has little more than a belief in hand washing and a few symptomatic treatments at his disposal?  That is Matthew Bartholomew's dilemma in To Kill or Cure, Susanna Gregory's thirteenth mystery set in 14th Century Cambridge.  Trained in Europe by an Arab physician, Bartholomew is the most modern of Cambridge's five medical men - he has studied anatomy (illegal in England at the time) and has a basic understanding of contagion and the connection between dirt and infection.  Still, many of his patients die, leaving the residents of Cambridge vulnerable to the charms of Richard Arderne, a charismatic man who claims to cure any ailment (for a large fee, of course) with his magic feather.  A magic feather might not impress us as much as, say, ginko biloba capsules, but since even doctors in 1357 didn't know how or why their patients recovered, I can understand how people might want to believe Arderne's spells.  

Arderne works against a backdrop of growing town/gown tensions.  Several years after the plague, prices have increased but the rents University students pay are statutorily kept artificially low and the landlords have organized, asking that the rates be tripled, or else they will no longer rent to students.  An apparent accident which kills one of Cambridge's other doctors leads to a riot in which a student and a townsman are killed, and a second, injured student disappears.  Bartholomew, acting as the University Corpse Examiner, finds that his colleague was actually murdered, but when Arderne brings the dead student back to life as Bartholomew begins his examination, he begins to question his skills. 

I've mentioned before that I'm rarely tricked by mysteries that don't cheat, and I solved the Arderne plot, perhaps a little too quickly.  The rent plot was a bit murkier, and while Gregory didn't quite cheat, she threw in a few too many suspects and motivations in the last few chapters.  I think Gregory may have realized that the Arderne plot was too thin and the rent plot too hard to solve for either to stand alone and tried to shoehorn them into a single novel.

It may look like I didn't enjoy To Kill or Cure, but I did.  Although thin, the Arderne plot was amusing and I was happy to see Gregory return Brother Michael to his earlier characterization.  Senior Proctor (and Chancellor in all but name) and Bartholomew's Michaelhouse College colleague, Michael had begun to veer towards the stereotype of the gluttonous, jolly monk with a somewhat cavalier attitude towards his vow of chastity.  The rent plot, while not particularly satisfying, brought Michael the courtier - an intelligent man skilled in balancing the competing interests of multiple parties and a lover of University politics - to the forefront.  He's not the fool he's played in the last few novels, but a skilled professional who manages to control a tinder-box town in tense times.