Young Matthew Bartholomew, Master of Medicine and Senior Physician (A Plague on Both Your Houses, 1998), assumes the new post of Corpse Examiner in time for a bumper crop in 1355 Cambridge.
The town recoils as two convicted murderers, Rob Thorpe and Edward Mortimer, return from exile with a King’s Pardon purchased by the wealthy Mortimer clan. The two glower menacingly at everyone who had a hand in their conviction, including Matthew; his friend Brother Michael, the Senior Proctor; and Michael’s grandmother, an undercover assassin for the King. Tension runs even higher when Mortimer’s uncle, drunken mill owner Thomas Mortimer, accidentally runs over two people in his cart, causing one to lose a leg and the other his life. Matthew imprudently dares to amputate the victim’s leg himself (physicians are supposed to confine themselves to bloodletting, potions, and horoscopes), but he’s too busy examining the corpse of a cunning old beggar, horribly poisoned, and two more prominent victims, the local grocer and a scholar found dead in the mill machinery with nails through their heads, to defend himself against his medical peers or the prodigal thugs. None of the mounting pile of corpses, including that of a bad-tempered rooster, deter Matthew from his dogged and good-hearted investigation.
Awkward exposition and relentless recapitulation burden this sprawling potboiler, though the scholars’ well-drawn friendships and feuds provide some welcome relief.