Thursday 2 June 2016

Good friends are hard to find .........

Today's guest blog is by Susanna Gregory who has written 22 books in the series in the Matthew Bartholomew series. 

When I wrote A Plague on Both Your Houses in the early 1990s, I did it just for fun and personal satisfaction, never expecting it to reach a literary agent, much less be published. Therefore, I certainly had no idea that more than twenty additional books featuring Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael would follow. Nor, in those early stages, did I anticipate that the pair of them would grow to be such good friends. Although I carry out a great deal of historical research for my books, I don’t plan each and every aspect of the storyline in advance, so in a sense their friendship was just something that developed virtually of its own accord.

To begin with, Michael was just a useful foil for Bartholomew’s thoughts – someone to bounce ideas off, and to accompany him as he hunted the many killers that darkened the streets of medieval Cambridge. In Plague, Michael wasn’t a particularly important character, and Bartholomew might just have easily have gone on to partner up with someone else. But there was something appealing about a portly monk with a keen intelligence, who loved his University and was eager to thwart anyone who threatened it – as long as it didn’t interfere with dinner. Or breakfast, or lunch. And so Michael began to develop in his own right.

In reality, such a friendship might never get off the ground, because the two men are so different, and share few interests beyond the College in which they live. Michael is fiercely ambitious, and will bend and break the rules – and sometimes the law – to protect his University and the way he thinks it should be run. He is gluttonous, elegant, suave, occasionally, selfish, has a liberal take on his monastic vows and loves intrigue. By contrast, Bartholomew is abstemious, has scant interest in clothes or money, and his overriding ambition is to serve his patients as best he can by expanding his knowledge of medicine. Michael is popular with women, while Bartholomew’s ineptness at courtship at least temporarily loses him the woman he loves.

And yet the difference between the two is one thing what makes writing the Bartholomew series so much fun. For example, food. Michael is invariably aghast at the prospect of missing a meal, and often delays fairly pressing duties in order to dine first. Bartholomew will often forget to eat when he is engrossed in a case. Neither really understands the other in this respect. Bartholomew nags Michael about his ever-expanding girth, and is appalled by his fondness for red meat and lots of bread, while Michael regards Bartholomew’s affection for vegetables with deep suspicion.

Although the medieval notion of a balanced diet was not the same as that espoused today, medici of the time were deeply interested in the subject, and many wrote books about it, expounding their particular theories and bombarding readers with a plethora of conflicting information. Sound familiar? Perhaps not so much has changed in the last seven centuries!

Bartholomew and Michael are physically different, too. Michael is obese, has thin but neat hair around a perfectly barbered tonsure, and takes considerable pride in his appearance. Bartholomew is tall, thin and a bit scruffy, and would rather spend his spare money on books than clothes.

Yet despite their differences, there are things they share – such as the sense of justice that leads them to pursue evil characters together, and an innate compassion. Bartholomew’s is shown in his kindness to his patients, and Michael’s in the College Choir – the body of untalented singers whom he provides with free bread and ale after every practice. And although the two Michaelhouse Fellows would never say so, there is a degree of mutual respect: Michael appreciates Bartholomew’s dedication to his patients and his determination to be a better physician; Bartholomew admires Michael’s intellect, secret generosity, and skills as an investigator. The last is reciprocated, as shown by Michael’s growing reluctance in later cases to proceed without his ‘Corpse Examiner.’

Of course, none of this came from me alone. The wonderful ‘Team Bartholomew’ at Sphere – Hilary, Thalia and Liz to name but three – have views about where the friendship between Bartholomew and Michael should be going, and keep me on the straight and narrow, should I try to take it in a direction they feel is wrong or unrealistic. So do my readers, who often write to give me their thoughts and insights. I thank them all – no writer can work in total isolation, and I love the fact that so many people feel that Bartholomew and Michael belong to them as well.

A Grave Concern by Susanna Gregory is published 2nd June by Sphere, price £19.99 in hardback. In addition, her previous book A Poisonous Plot is published in paperback on the same day, price £8.99.

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