Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Shrine of Murders by C. L. Grace

Katherine Swinbrooke is a doctor in 15th Century Canterbury, who lives with the fact that her husband went away to war and left her behind, leaving her a sort of widow, but one who doesn't even have the certainty of knowing if her husband is actually dead or knowing where his body is buried.

She has two servants in her house, Thomasina, a housemaid who helps Katherine with her profession, and Agnes, a kitchen-maid. Thomasina is constantly after Katherine to remarry, but Katherine resists because her husband may still be alive, as well as the fact that she likes being an independent woman.

Then the town council assigns her to help Colum Murtagh, an Irishman assigned to be the new comissioner for the town, and who must look into a series of murders Which occurred around the town, murders that could only have been perpetrated by a male physician. Since Katherine is the only female doctor in the city, and therefore innocent, she is the perfect one to assign to help Murtagh, no matter that she has patients of her own and a business and home to look after as well.

The killer is not only skilled in medicine and poisons, but apparently has a literary soul, leaving bits of verse from Chaucer's Canterbury Tale at the door of the town cathedral after every murder. Catherine knows the story, and is intelligent and skilled, also knowing poisons since she has to be able to know their signs and how to treat them. Murtagh is also intelligent, but more crude in personality, whereas Katherine knows how to approach people. Yet he can be assured entry in places where she is normally forbidden. It will take both of them working together to solve the mystery... but can they get past their personal secrets and demons to confess to each other their deepest secrets and find a place of trust with each other?

A sub-plot is that Katherine is being threatened as a murderess by an unknown letter-writer, and Thomasina must track down the blackmailer and put a stop to the harrassment of her mistress. And we find the true fate of her husband thereby.

I really enjoyed the book, which taught me a new bit of information: that women *could* be physicians back then. It was only later that they were refused entry into the profession and relegated to being only midwives and hedge witches selling potions and nostrums. It was a fascinating peek into a medieval town still seething with hatreds and feuds during the Wars of the Roses.

The plot is tightly put together, and suitably confusing, and the murderer's reasons for the killings he did finally make it clear at the end. The book ends with the promise of more stories to come, and I do plan to read them in the very near future.

This book truly evokes the middle ages/renaissance, with both the characters and setting, and is an excellent mystery to boot. Incidentally, C.L. Grace is another pen name for Paul Doherty, a prolific writer of medieval mysteries, and his skill shows here. You'll enjoy this book a lot.

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