Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Study of Murder by Susan McDuffie

Title: The Study of Murder
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

Rating: Liked.
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.

*** *** ***


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!


  1. Hallo Audra,

    I must confess, ever since I saw this book being adverted on HFVBT's for September, I have been most keen to uncover what the story is about! And, to read the perspectives of the bloggers who are reviewing it! :) I quickly could ascertain that it was going to be an intriguing read, and therefore, I poste haste cast my entry! :)

    When I read the story centers around Oxford, I couldn't help but to recall the episodes of Inspector Morse + Inspector Lewis I have seen! I had to let go of Morse in favour of Lewis, as the story-lines were too gutting! However, like you, I love stories that paint a world so exquisitely, that they transport you directly to another time and place! And, your quite right, its the ordinary details of the everyday that truly help make a world wholly unknown to us to be accessible!

    Your final revelation of the novel is exactly what I needed to know! Sometimes I can step outside the cosy world if its this side of hard-boiled!! Thank you for including that! :) And, for saying a beginner to the series could use this book as a catalyst!!

    Thank you for offering the bookaway and I will most indeed return for the author interview! That seals it! I've bookmarked your blog (to return as oft as I do) but now I'm signing up for the email updates!!

    1. Jorie -- thank you for another delightful and thoughtful comment! I so appreciate it!

      Morse/Lewis have long been on my To Be Watched (they're a tv show only? or is there a book series, too?) -- but I love the focus on Oxford (city and university) as it's a really fascinating locale. (I admit, shamefully, I'd no idea the university had been around that long and Balliol College, featured in this book, had been around some hundred years before!).

      So glad the review helped 'explain' the novel in a way you found useful and I'm so glad you entered the giveaway. I'm quite taken with the series -- I keep thinking about the main leads with warm affection, which is always a good sign!

    2. Thank you, Jorie, for your comments and interest in THE STUDY OF MURDER, and thank you, Audra for the wonderful review. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.

      Regarding Oxford, I spent a great deal of time when writing this book with "Records of Mediaeval Oxford" by H.E. Salter, a POD reprint of some lectures from about 1912 on the ancient walls of the city and also some fascinating coroner's records from inquests in this era. I'm a total research nut, so spent all my time musing, "No, they would have used this city gate to get to the lecture halls. . . ." etc. Anyway, I had a wonderful time with it all--to each their own, I guess--

      Good luck on the giveaway, Jorie and I'll look forward to staying in touch. I do have a facebook page, if you want to stay in touch that way. I usually post a few times a week, generally research or writing related (Of course, this week there are a lot of reviews! :-) )

    3. Good evening, Audra! :)

      I had meant to drop a reply yesterday, but apparently time swept me away! It is interesting that you asked me this question, in regards to "Morse/Lewis" being a book series, as I thought, whilst ILL'ing Morse through my local library, that somewhere in the special features, I was given this information!? Hmm,... let me double-check!! :) Note to anyone who reads this: Be wary of the extras, as they revealed what happens to Morse, which was a gutting blow to take in, when I was only seeing Series 1! Yes!! We're both remembering correctly! The Inspector Morse novels were penned by: Colin Dexter. I do endeavour to read the series, and perhaps, re-visit the tv series as well, but for now, I am deferring to a preference of watching "Lewis"!! I was ill-fated not to be able to keep up with the weekly airings of the prequel which is "Endeavour" which shows the underpinnings of how Morse became Morse! I never knew until then, that "Endeavour" was his first name! I caught the pilot episode on PBS, but no more past it! :( Sighs.

      What appealed to me about Morse + Lewis, were the interplay between the actors and the solemn seriousness to Morse in general! He took his job seriously and cared about the cases, even though, he is more oft to make people think otherwise! Lewis, his understudy follows well in his mentor's footsteps, and you can see pieces of the original series through Series 1 + 2 of Lewis, which is where I am currently! Thankfully, my local library carries Lewis! :) Having said that, the addition of Hathoway, makes me smile, because he is by extension Lewis's match as far as giving him a bit of a run for his money, as the young blood Hathoway irks Lewis' ire in much the same ways as Lewis once did Morse! In this way, the continuity between the series and by extension, the seamless dedication of the actors, gives this a special place in my heart!

      IF/When you watch these, we should talk further, as I was about to say something that I would have inadvertently wrecked for you to see first hand! Mum's the word, then!

      Prior to seeing the series, I always mistook Oxford for a quaint University towne, where scholarly pursuits were the center-focus! However, its also a hub for the arts, theatre, and has a youthful vibe set against the backdrop of a rather ancient site of University grounds! There is history leaping out off the screen, and inside the suspense of the story-lines, I always get a proper sense that 'there is something more' 'something left unsaid' that is just awaiting my discovery! I love old architecture and places like Oxford, who have an enriched history that is still viable and visible!

      Combined with all of this I said tonight + the other day, you can see why I was properly fascinated by "A Study in Murder"!!! :) :) I completely concur with you, the characters that stay a bit in your mind's eye and heart, are the ones who have broached into that special remembrance place all readers aspire to keep their most beloved reads!

    4. Hallo Ms. McDuffie!

      What a lovely surprise to find your response!! I was coming back to speak further to Audra about my experiences with Oxford through a popular BBC tv serial, as I am rather keen on the BBC Dramas + Mysteries! (the comedies I prefer are not generally akin to the masses these days, as I adore: Keeping Up Appearances, The Good Life, To The Manor Born, and Monarch of the Glen, which is part comedy/part family drama!)

      I commend you for your tenacity for research, as that is always the mark of a writer who stitches into their stories little subtle clues that a reader may not even realise be aiding their full perspective of the setting they are delving into! I always appreciate a full-bodied story, fleshed out, and writ in such a wicked style, as to transport myself clear off to 'somewhere' else during the duration of the story! Being that this one is settled in Oxford, and having a visual memory of present day Oxford, with the footsteps of the past everywhere you look, I have a cursory view of what it could look like during the time of the novel!

      A bit like how when I walked around Uxmal, Mexico at the ruins that were left behind, and the pyramids that are still able to be climbed; you get a proper sense of what the heyday would have been like for the inhabitants as there is just enough left behind of a human presence to bewitch your imagination! :)

      Ooh, how wicked indeed! To be that far into your studies of the history of Oxford, to actually start to think like they who had lived there would have! I loved reading that bit about the 'gates' that would have been used!! :) I am a history buff myself, and I adore these sorts of things!

      I'll be dropping a note to you privately in a moment!

  2. Don't count me in as I am overseas but history, medieval history at that a hero never mind Scottish. anyone would be hooked!

    1. Mystica -- am sorry I couldn't offer an international copy but hope you might be able to snag an ebook of it someday. Really quite charming -- as I said to someone above, the two main characters have stuck with me and I really can't stop thinking about them!

    2. Hi Mystica, Thanks so much for your comment and your interest. The first two books in the series, A MASS FOR THE DEAD and THE FAERIE HILLS are both available as ebooks, and I believe THE STUDY OF MURDER will also be published as an e-book. (This time the publisher kept those rights which was not the case with the other two mysteries--the times they are a'changing!)

      I also have another book giveaway on Goodreads which does include some overseas countries, although not all, so check that out if you are inclined and want to enter there.
      I hope you enjoy all!

  3. "Muirteach is a wry narrator, appealingly ordinary" - love the sound of that. I mentally mumble character names too, particularly French and Scandinavian ones ;)

    1. I'm glad you liked the sound of that -- was afraid I was making him sound dull -- but I meant he wasn't a kind of action hero alpha male or anything like that. He's a man you could know now -- only a few hundred years older ;) -- and I liked the book for that.

      I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who mentally mumbles! ;)

    2. So glad Muirteach sounds intriguing--I'm a bit of a fan of the "tortured hero"--and I'm glad you both relate! I'm glad you found that pronunciation guide, Audra. Many folks commented regarding the first book in the series, A MASS FOR THE DEAD, that they needed a pronunciation guide. There is one in the ebook versions of the first two books in the series, but since this book was not set in Scotland there wasn't much Gaelic so I didn't include a glossary/pronunciation guide. Oh well, hindsight---

  4. By the way, Audra, your comment about the middle ages as " a step above cave people" made me think of a book you might like. It's an older book titled DOWN THE COMMON, A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A MEDIEVAL WOMAN. Author is Ann Baer. I swear she channeled it--it is so very real. Not a big action book, just a real sense of peasant life, and maybe not that much more pleasant than cave people, actually--but fascinating--so if you come across a copy in one of those great used book stores in bean-town pick it up!