Friday, 6 August 2010

71: "Mistress of the Art of Death" by Ariana Franklin

Publisher: Bantam Books
Page count: 512 pages
Date begun: July 22nd, 2010
Date finished: July 25th, 2010

Someone is killing children in 12th Century Cambridge, and the Jews are being blamed for it. Since the Jews are forced to hide in the sheriff's fortress, Henry II can't tax them, and is losing a lot of much needed revenue. He also has to deal carefully with the Church, after that unfortunate incident where his Archbishop, Thomas Becket, got brutally murdered by some knights who misunderstood the king's wishes. Adelia, a Mistress in the Art of Death (a Medieval pathologist, basically) is sent to Cambridge with her eunuch manservant, Mansur, and one of the chief agents of the King of Sicily, Simon of Naples.

As women are not allowed to practice medicine in England, and they are afraid she may be accused of witchcraft, Adelia poses as Mansur's assistant. He only speaks Arabic in front of the patients, and she "translates" the doctor's orders and carries them out. With the help of the local prior, who Adelia saves during their journey, the little band of investigators are housed safely in Cambridge, given a capable housekeeper, and Adelia is given access to the bodies of the dead children. It quickly becomes clear to Adelia and Simon that the murderer's most likely a Crusader, and the local tax collector is both a former crusading knight and very interested in the case and Adelia's findings.

Mistress in the Art of Death is a very entertaining read, with a fascinating cast of characters. The author freely admits that some things in the book are anachronistic. Adelia is a stubborn, fiercely intelligent and prickly heroine. She feels out of place with most women, and is loathe to suffer the foolishness of people in general. Simon of Naples is a much more patient and pleasant man, who has realized that by appearing gentle and a bit simple one can find out a great many things, and being met unassuming and non-threatening, but very good listener, most people will spill their secrets unwittingly.

The book's tension builds gradually. The various suspects are presented fairly early on, but there are enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. The author manages to present a lot of history while still writing a compelling murder mystery. While the book started a bit slowly, it did not take long before I had trouble putting it down.

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