Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review: THE STUDY OF MURDER by Susan McDuffie

The pursuit of knowledge takes a vicious turn in Susan McDuffie's THE STUDY OF MURDER (Five Star, 2013), the third novel of her fourteenth century Muirteach MacPhee series. Scottish sleuth Muirteach and his wife Mariota accompany Donald, their lord's teenaged son, to Oxford University for his studies. Soon a tavern maid disappears and someone bludgeons an Oxford master to death. As Mariota sneaks into lecture halls and Donald carouses with fellow students, Muirteach investigates the crimes. Tensions between the academic community and the townsfolk rise to a fevered pitch when another senseless killing occurs and the undersheriff arrests suspects on the basis of Muirteach's findings. Yet Muirteach himself remains unconvinced of their guilt; certain the strange drawings Donald discovers on some used parchments will lead him to the killer, he continues his inquiries. Then Mariota disappears, and Muirteach must solve the riddle of the murderer's identity with all haste if he hopes to find his wife alive.

The strength of McDuffie's mystery lies in its evocation of medieval Oxford. With the help of the included map, the reader follows on Muirteach's heels as he traipses through town, visiting its stately college halls, shabby student tenements, raucous taverns and busy booksellers and stationers. She smells the offal in the gutter, the acrid odors of the tannery, the sweet flowers of the surrounding countryside. She hears the drone of Latin lectures, the off-key plucking of Donald's lute, the shouts of rioting mobs, the scrape of tools on parchment. She tastes the cheap wine, the hearty meat pies, the landlady's comforting stew. Not only does the author evoke the sensory details of fourteenth century life, she describes the structure of the medieval university, the conventions of instruction, the importance of disputation in earning a degree. McDuffie brings to vivid life a university experience quite different from today's.

The novel's characters are convincing and likable. Devoted to his wife and his charge, Muirteach is a reluctant sleuth, but a thorough one, determined to get to the bottom of things and bring the true criminal to justice. Headstrong Mariota might be a tad modern for the times, given her determination to further her medical education, but her family history and her father's reputation as a physician make her yearnings believable. The students who populate the university cross the spectrum from cerebral philosophers to partying louts; the masters themselves are distinctive and wedded with enthusiasm to their specialties. Palpable tension exists between the merchants, landlords, servants and watch and the often supercilious and dissolute students who take them for granted. Muirteach, in his role as Donald's chaperone, understands and mediates between the two factions.

The mystery itself is carefully developed so as to cast suspicion on multiple persons, each of whom has a valid motivation for involvement in the crimes. Early on I had a hunch as to the identity of the perpetrator, yet I found my confidence in this identification challenged again and again by the plausible motives of other suspects. Even though my guess proved ultimately correct, it was entertaining to watch Muirteach piece together the evidence and come to conclusions that defy the obvious.

Enriched by colorful characters, caustic conflict, and a finely researched setting, THE STUDY OF MURDER will please readers looking for a unique, historically based whodunit.

You can learn more about author Susan McDuffie at her website. Susan wrote an interesting article about the historical Voynich manuscript, the creative kernel of her mystery, here.

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