Adelia Aguilar is a rare thing in medieval Europe – a woman who has trained as a doctor. Her speciality is the study of corpses, a skill that must be concealed if she is to avoid accusations of witchcraft.
But in Cambridge a child has been murdered, others are disappearing, and King Henry has called upon a renowned Italian investigator to find the killer – fast.
What the king gets is Adelia, his very own Mistress of the Art of Death.
The investigation takes Adelia deep into Cambridge; its castle and convents, and streets teeming with life. And it’s here that she attracts the attention of a murderer who is prepared to kill again…
I love historical fiction and I love crime fiction, so to find a well-written book of historical crime is a treat. The first historical crime I ever read, was one of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books. I’d stumbled across it at my local library and fell in love with it. Discovering Ms Franklin’s Cambridge and meeting Adelia was a similar experience. I fell in love with this book and its characters and enjoyed every moment I spent with Mistress of the Art of Death.
Adelia is a great character, I loved her wry humour and her compassion. She might seem anachronistic and forward in her independence and frank way of speaking, but there truly were female doctors in Salerno and one would imagine that coming from such a background she would be more ‘modern’ (for lack of a better word) than the English women she’s surrounded by in the book. At the same time she does conform to the age; an example of this is the fact she adamantly refuses to marry, knowing full well that to be married in the Middle Ages generally meant to lose any independence or autonomy a woman may have had.
Adelia forms an interesting and delightful trio with Simon of Naples and her Arabian companion Mansur. They arrive in Cambridge to investigate the murders and there are joined by several other great characters. Prior Geoffrey is a remarkable character, between calling the Prioress names you wouldn’t expect from a priest and his past with Gyltha, he is a rather worldly cleric, but a wise and kindly one. Sir Rowley Picot, who keeps inserting himself into the investigation and is both of assistance and suspect. I adored Ulf; he was the perfect little imp, surly but loveable. And of course Gyltha, Ulf’s grandmother and cook and housekeeper for the strange little household that Adelia, Simon and Mansur form. There are many more smaller characters and none of them are throwaway. They all have a place and a purpose, however small, to drive the narrative onward.
Mistress of the Art of Death does not just have great characters, but great writing as well. The narrative technique – the omniscient third person – made me wary at first, as it’s been a long time since I read a work with an unlimited point of view. Sometimes switching between characters during dialogue is risky, as it can cause confusion, but it was handled very skilfully and works well here. Another concern it raised for me was how this omniscient narration would work in keeping the mystery mysterious. It worked very well. I guess it’s all in the choosing of what to reveal, the fact that the narration is omniscient, doesn’t mean the author has to tell us everything. Ms Franklin kept me guessing until the reveal of the culprit and still managed to surprise me! In addition, she also uses some beautiful imagery, such as the following fragment:
Adelia was aware that Cambridge piped to her, but she would not dance. To her, the double reflection of everything was symptomatic of a deeper duplicity, a Janus town, where a creature that killed children walked on two legs like any other man.
A sparrowhawk landed on the west window-sill and took off again, disturbed by the vibration inside the room as the sound of Simon’s slap reverberated around the walls.
In Mistress of the Art of Death Ms Franklin depicts some of the unsavoury (to put it mildly) attitudes of the early Middle Ages. The biggest of these, and central to the book, is the subject of 12th century anti-Semitism and general xenophobia. She is unapologetic in its depiction, but at the same time shows the irrationality that’s at the bottom of the town’s prejudices.
Mistress of the Art of Death was a captivating read with an awesome and completely unexpected denouement, in all respects. Sadly, Ms Franklin passed away at the end of January this year, so there will be no more additions to the four books in her Mistress of the Art of Death series. I really want to read the other three books, but I guess I’ll be spacing them out, so I’ll have them to look forward to. If, like me, you haven’t encountered the books of Ariana Franklin before, look for them on the shelves, because you’ve missed out on a rare treat!
This book was sent to me for review as part of the Great Transworld Crime Caper.