Mistress of the Art of Death

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Mistress of the Art of Death By Ariana Franklin, book reviewWhen a child murder takes place in twelfth century Cambridge, the finger of blame is pointed at the town’s Jewish community. As tensions rise, Cambridge’s Jews are forced to take refuge behind the walls of the castle but this poses a big problem for the king; with the Jews unable to work, the country is losing a lucrative income in the form of taxes. The situation calls for an expert and the king summons the services of an expert investigator, Simon of Athens. However, Simon does not arrive alone; if it wasn’t odd enough to the citizens of Cambridge that he should be accompanied by an Arab eunuch, Simon is assisted by Adelia Aguilar, a female doctor, trained at the medical school in Salerno and an expert in mysterious deaths. Knowing that Adelia will not be able to openly carry out her trade because she is a woman, the investigation must take place without anyone knowing that it is she that is the one who is examining the evidence. Not only that, by the time the Simon and his friends reach Cambridge more children are missing and someone seems bent on ensuring that these medieval detectives do not learn the truth.

Simon and Adelia arrive in Cambridge in the company of a band of pilgrims, hoping that by doing so they can divert attention from themselves. Among the pilgrims are two fierce rivals, the prioress of St .Radegund’s nunnery and Prior Geoffrey, the head of a monastery which is situated directly across the river from the nunnery. Prioress Joan is determined to secure ownership of the remains of the dead child, now being touted as Little St. Peter, to display in her church as a way of generating income. Geoffrey is set on preventing this. Against this struggle, Adelia must try to determine how Peter met his end and, in doing so, identify the murderer.

From the outset I had doubts about the historical accuracy and authenticity of the setting and the characters but “Mistress of the Art of Death” is such an engaging and compelling story that I soon forgot about these niggles. Most importantly, as crime fiction, this really hits the spot. There are plenty of suspects for readers to consider and plenty of clues to get those brain cells buzzing. The main plot is watertight and the sub plots weave in very nicely.

But what really makes Mistress of the Art of Death a great read is the characterisation and scene setting. Ariana Franklin (a pseudonym of author Diana Norman) transports readers to a bustling medieval English town complete with the sounds and smells to go with the visual images. Combined with this trip to a very specific period, the reader is presented with a number of issues of the time – the place of religion, the role of women, the class system – which give plenty of food for thought without detracting from the main plot.

“This briskly paced novel is thoroughly absorbing…”

Adelia is the star of this show but there are plenty of characters here that could easily be at the centre of some other novel. Prior Geoffrey is the, admittedly stereotypical, pampered clergyman who clearly lives the high life even though he preaches the merits of a different lifestyle to others. Unlike the Prioress, though, he is basically a decent man; she, on the other hand, is the perfect example of the corruption rife in the church at a time when the selling pardons was a lucrative trade.

Adelia is an engaging and highly likeable character even if she too frequently comes across as product of more recent times. Her knowledge of the principles of good hygiene is way before her time (centuries ahead in fact) and her feminist stance strikes me as unlikely. That said, she is funny and witty and draws the reader in with her humour and warmth. I particularly enjoyed the interaction between Adelia and Ulf, a young boy who accompanies her throughout the investigation. Ulf and his grandmother, who Prior Geoffrey arranges to act as a cook and housekeeper, test Adelia before they agree to help her but once she proves herself, Adelia finds she has in the unconventional pair a source of loyalty that she will come to be grateful for, in spite of her will to be independent.

To dwell on the factual errors and generally unlikely nature of some of the details and dialogue is to do Mistress of the Art of Death a great disservice. This briskly paced novel is thoroughly absorbing and keeps the reader guessing until the end. This novel is surprising, witty and intriguing and, to my mind, evoked the period in a really colourful way. It’s a brilliant introduction to a character I can really get along with and I look forward to my next encounter.

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Mistress of the Art of Death
by Ariana Franklin

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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