The Study of Murder by Susan McDuffie
Author: Susan McDuffie
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 14th Century / UK / Oxford University / Murder Mystery)
Publisher/Publication Date: Five Star Publishing (9/16/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did, very quickly.
One-sentence summary: Scottish scribe and detective finds himself at Oxford University to support his young ward and becomes embroiled solving murders, disappearances, and the source of a mysterious manuscript.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction
Do I like the cover?: I do, actually: first, I find it it kind of hypnotic; and second, the stoniness matches both the university and
I'm reminded of...: Priscilla Royal
First line: The nymphs first.
Did... I love the author's Gaelic pronunciation guide she has on her website?: YES. Typically (shamefully?!), if I can't immediately pronounce a character's name, I tend to just spend the rest of the time mentally mumbling it. I found the guide ahead of my reading, and was able to say Muirteach correctly ('Moor - tech')!
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy especially if you like medieval fiction, historical mysteries, or a good Scottish hero.
Why did I get this book?: I like historical mysteries, the medieval era, and I was intrigued by McDuffie's book after briefly meeting her at the Historical Novel Society's conference this past June.
Review: Set in 1374, the novel follows Muirteach MacPhee, a Scottish scribe who is the Keeper of the Records for the Lord of the Isles, who is accompanying the Lord's 13-year-old son who is off to Oxford University. (I will admit I jumped a bit at that detail -- what is this kid, a genius?!)
Joined by his wife Mariota, they quickly find themselves sucked into Oxford life when there's a murder on the university grounds just after a pretty young townswoman disappears. (More happens, but all this unfolds in the first 60 pages.) Simmering tensions between the town and university start to rise to a boil, worrying those who remembered the St. Scholastica Day riot only 19 years early that resulted in more than 90 dead.
This novel is the kind I relish, loaded with ordinary details about a world I'm not familiar with and, frankly, have a hard time imagining. (Shamefully, sometimes I land on crazy extremes for my mental images of the medieval era -- either sparkling pretty fantasy-lite or a step above cave people.)
The world McDuffie evokes felt real, peppered with tidbits about the era that made it feel real for me. (I will say, the tension between the town and university made the squabbles between my own alma mater and the town it was in seem tame; funny that university towns still chafe at the relationship between the two!)
Written in first person, Muirteach is a wry narrator, appealingly ordinary. Whether dealing with his wild teenaged ward, his clever wife, or fighting crime, he responds with a resigned sort of patience I find appealing -- not quite the hardboiled PI we're used in in contemporary mysteries, but certainly an early ancestor of one. Mariota, his smart wife, trained in medicine, is a woman immediately after my heart: unwilling to spend her days sewing while her husband trots about the town, she makes lemonade, so to speak, of the lemons she's given. The secondary characters are distinct, and while I can't say how 'hard' the mystery was to solve (I'm not one to guess), it felt sufficiently complicated enough that I was impatient to get to the big reveal!
While this is the third novel featuring Muirteach, I found I was easily able to dip into the story without feeling lost. McDuffie recaps a little of Muirteach's past and he often alludes to his anxieties about murder and crimes -- presumably the events of the previous two books -- and I never felt like I was missing anything.
Having inhaled this one, I'm eager to go back to McDuffie's previous two novels and I hope there's a fourth Murteach MacPhee book in my future. Not quite a cozy, but not exactly a hard-boiled, this is an atmospheric mystery that might please those who love Scottish heroes, university settings, and medieval life beyond knights and castles.
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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of The Study of Murder to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 10/4.
Be sure to come back on September 25 for my interview with the author -- and another chance to enter!