Book Review: The Tarnished Chalice by Susanna Gregory

cover for Susanna Gregory's The Tarnished Chalice shows an old chalice tipped across a background of a cathedral interior printed in shades of red. The Tarnished Chalice
By Susanna Gregory
Little, Brown Book Group, 2006

What the book’s about:

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the series, the Matthew Bartholomew mysteries are set in the mid-1300s in various towns across England and France.

Matthew Bartholomew is a scholar at Cambridge whose logical mind gives him a leg up on his contemporaries when it comes to solving mysteries.

Although many of his scholarly friends are monks, Matthew himself is not. In fact, Matthew is in love with a woman named Mathilde. Unfortunately, by the time he worked up the nerve to propose to her, she had lost patience with him and left town. He’s been looking for her ever since.

The Tarnished Chalice takes place in the town of Lincoln in the winter of 1356. Matthew, his friend Brother Michael, and his book-bearer and bodyguard Cynric are traveling to Lincoln, where Brother Michael is due to be installed as a canon in the local cathedral. Matthew is doubly interested in making the trip because Mathilde spent some time in Lincoln before her move to Cambridge. Matthew hopes to find someone in Lincoln who might know where Mathilde is now.

The night they arrive, they learn that someone has been murdered in the very monastery where they are staying. Naturally, Matthew, Cynric, and Brother Michael decide to solve this mystery. The installation isn’t for another two weeks, and solving a murder will give them something to do while they wait.

What I thought about it:

Gregory has a sly humor that sneaks up on you. I laughed out loud at more than one point, prompting my husband to ask what was so funny. “I’d read you the joke, dear, but the set up for this one started 93 pages ago.”

Despite the regular doses of dry fun, Gregory’s story line starts to sag about halfway through. There were a lot of characters to meet in the town of Lincoln, but for the most part, meeting them didn’t feel like it advanced the crime-solving portion of the mystery very much. Nor did any of them have much to say on the subject of Mathilde beyond agreeing that pretty much everyone who knew her loved her.

I began to wonder if Matthew and Brother Michael were simply going to wander around town chatting with people until a solution to one or both problems presented itself.

What I learned about writing from reading this book:

Most likely, Susanna Gregory intended to use the installation as a way to cap the story and build tension as time ran out. But keeping Brother Michael and Matthew in Lincoln until Brother Michael’s installation two weeks later ended up trapping Gregory as much as it did her protagonists.

Especially in the saggy middle, where it felt like Gregory was purposefully dragging her heels with the various investigations because there were still several days to go until the installation, and Gregory needed to fill that time somehow. The fact that Matthew’s hunt for Mathilde in Lincoln yields almost nothing by way of real clues doesn’t help.  At the end of The Tarnished Chalice, Matthew is essentially no closer to finding Mathilde than he was before the trip, making that entire storyline feel like so much filler.

As a reader, I would have preferred Gregory not to tie the murder mystery to the timing of the installation at all. Allowing the murder to be solved at its own pace would have let Gregory pepper the clues more densely through the story, eliminated the need for us to tag along while Matthew did so much fruitless searching, and improved the pacing of the novel overall. Who cares if the story magically skips over a few empty days between the unmasking of the murderer and the morning of the installation? Writers do that all the time.

This is Book 12 in the Matthew Bartholomew series. Do I have to read the others first? 

No. This was the first Matthew Bartholomew mystery I’d read, and I did fine. It’s entirely possible that I would have cared more about Matthew’s hunt for Mathilde if I’d read the other books in the series first, but for the most part, this is a self-contained story.

So, would you read another book in this series? 

Absolutely. For all my complaining about saggy middles, I enjoyed meeting most of Gregory’s characters and I definitely appreciated her sense of humor. In the end, the murder mystery itself proved to be a satisfactory puzzle.

Since I like novels set in the Middle Ages in general, it’s very likely I’ll pick up another Matthew Bartholomew mystery before the year is out. But this time I’ll look for one with Mathilde in it, so that I can see what all that fuss was about.

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