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Franklin, Ariana - 'Mistress of the Art of Death'
Paperback: 512 pages (May 2008) Publisher: Bantam Press ISBN: 0553818007

MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH is the first in an intriguing series of pathologist procedurals with a twist - the books are set in 12th century England.

The heroine, Adelia Aguilar, has an unusual background. She was abandoned on the slopes of Vesuvius as a baby and brought up by Jewish foster parents, then trained as a doctor in Salerno. (Salerno was several hundred years ahead of its time, and allowed women to train as doctors). Adelia is sent to England by the King of Sicily at the request of Henry II to investigate a particularly unpleasant murder of a child, little Peter, accompanied by wily operator Simon of Naples, a skilled investigator, and her male eunuch servant Mansur.

Henry II has become involved because the murders have been pinned on the local Jewish community who have been forced to abandon their homes and businesses and take shelter in Cambridge Castle. The head of the community, Chaim, a moneylender, has been killed by irate locals, and rather conveniently for some, the records of moneys owed to him have also been destroyed. Henry has been motivated to intervene as much from economic considerations as humanitarian ones; the Jewish community has been a good source of tax revenues.

Shortly after Adelia arrives, the bodies of more children are found who have been killed in a similar way to little Peter. Although the Jewish community should be exonerated (they would not be able to leave the Castle unseen so could not have committed these murders), local superstitious feeling has determined that the Cambridge Jews are still somehow responsible.

Adelia's investigative freedom is somewhat hampered as 12th Century England isn't quite ready for a female "doctor to the dead" . To avoid accusations of witchcraft Adelia cannot openly admit her medical training to most in Cambridge, and has to pretend in public that Mansur is the doctor and she is his assistant. Adelia also has to contend with those in the Church who are rather hostile to the medical profession and pain relief, and regard prayer and relics as being the only legitimate methods of cure. The Church and the returning Crusaders hold the majority of wealth and power in Cambridge, and the conflict between religion/superstition and science/rationality is a recurrent theme in this book.

This novel excels in discussing the uses and abuses of religion, and gives a rounded portrait - not all heads of religious houses and crusaders are shown to be venal and corrupt, and some are interested and cooperative in helping Adelia bring the killer to justice, but other religious characters have rather less positive features. The portrayal of the Jewish community and its traditions is also convincing, as is its depiction of the "blood libel", the persecution that Jewish people have endured due to false accusations of killing children.

Characterisation is strong; Adelia is an engaging heroine, feisty, determined, and as uninterested in social graces and carousing as you might expect from a pathologist. She does seem to have a rather unconvincingly sophisticated grasp of modern hygiene for a supposed 12th century doctor. The characterisation of Henry II is also very interesting. Ariana Franklin makes a convincing case for rehabilitating a monarch infamous for being responsible for the death of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury, highlighting Henry's achievements in bringing about peace and stability and administering justice and developing the common law system.

Overall, MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH is an intriguing read, although a little slow in the first half, and as befits a pathologist thriller contains some rather grisly details of mutilations to bodies. Its strengths lie in the political and historical details of the period.

Read another review of MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH.

Laura Root, England
June 2009

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 13/06/2009 20:45