Book Review: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
Penguin, January 2008
CSI - Medieval!
Mistress of the Art of Death tackles head on all the topics you’re not supposed to talk about at a dinner party; sex, death, religion and politics. What’s most surprising is that Franklin (the pen name of British writer Diana Norman) does so in a fresh way while setting her novel in 12th century England.
At first glance her heroine is an unlikely character; a spunky Jewish forensic specialist with a shocking lack of modesty and tact. Adelia is a brilliant scientist in an age when most women could not even read and were regarded more as breeding stock than people. But Adelia has been lucky enough to receive what passed for a thorough medical education in those days.
Of course no one in medieval England has ever heard of a female doctor, or a forensic investigator of any gender. In the age of witch burnings, examining corpses was not the cool past-time portrayed on TV nowadays. It was called “desecration of the dead” and likely to get you chased by a mob of angry villagers waving torches and pitchforks. Being dragged before the Inquisition was not out of the realm of possibility either.
But that is just what Adelia does when King Henry II commands her to solve a series of gruesome crimes in the sleepy village of Cambridge. Crimes the Catholic Church has blamed on the local Jewish community, who are bankers to the King… and just about everyone else as well. Henry gives Adelia carte blanche to dig into all the town’s dirty little secrets, which are numerous, when he realizes how bloody inconvenient it would be if his bankers were burned at the stake. If the Jews are massacred, who will finance his next war?
Adelia’s investigation is not at all to the liking of the monks and nuns who wield religious power over the town nor to the citizens who have an awful lot of dirty linen for a little bucolic village. Like most genre mysteries, the plot revolves around the murders, the cover-up and the eventual revealing of the perpetrator. When Adelia is attacked by the murderer she is, naturally, saved by a gallant knight. It is the Middle Ages after all.
You can almost smell “series” in the pages. Adelia, like Kay Scarpetta in an itchy gown, with her noble lover in tow seem destined to romp through the villages and moors chasing murderers through hedgerows for many more volumes to come.