” Their instructions were to see the Jews’ name washed of the taint of murder, an aim to be accomplished only by discovering the identity of the true killer . . . The bodies she’d just examined had darkened Cambridge for her; she’d seen the results of murder before but rarely any so terrible as these. Somewhere in this country a butcher of children walked and breathed. ” (Ch.5, p.88-89)
In 12th century England, in Cambridge, four children were murdered. They died a horrible death after being subjected to torture. From Solerno, where Western medicine thrives, Henry II summons the help of Adelia Aguilar, a forensic physician, to identify the killer and to exonerate the Jews from accusation of murder. The king is also disturbed by the interruption of his tax revenue, of which the Jews contribute a substantial portion.
On her way to Cambridge, Adelia cures a prior of his bladder problem. Impressed by her professionalism, he wishes her to examine the remains of the children, but in discretion, for no one in 12th century expects a female expert, let alone a physician. So Adelia arrives Cambridge in disguise, as an assistant to her Arab servant, who poses as the doctor.
The attacks are frenzied, which argues youth, but they are planned, which argues maturity. He lures them to a special and isolated place, like the hill; I think there must be so because nobody hears their torture. (Ch.8, p.163)
Franklin builds up some good suspense, but the revelation of the killer is very disappointing. As Adelia probes the murder, one man willing to work with her is Sir Rowley Picot, whose personal stake in the investigation makes him an invaluable ally—but, in the doctor’s suspicious and supercilious eyes, a suspect as well.
Mistress of the Art of Death is hardly a mystery, although there is a mystery to be solved. Much research has gone into this book, creating a detailed account about forensic science, the Crusades, the historical conflict between Christians and Islams, and the perspectives of Jews and women during the medieval period. More to my delight is how Franklin contends that Henry II should be remembered for protecting the Jews from religious persecution and establishing trial by jury under the revolutionary legal system of common law.
400 pp. Berkley Books. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]