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[589] Mistress of the Art of Death – Ariana Franklin


” 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]

New Books

I checked in at the Musing Mondays blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

Tell us what book(s) you recently bought for yourself or someone else, and why you chose that/those book(s).

After the satisfying Under the Dome, I was back at the bookstore looking for The Stand. When I was seen reading Under the Dome, people asked if I have read The Stand. I was piqued to include it on my list. It’s another science fiction/horror hefty 1400-pager. In 1978, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a scathing review of The Stand in which he exhorted his readers to grab strangers in bookstores and beg them not to buy it. That probably furthered the book’s popularity. The first edition released in 1978 was 823 pages long. Recently, King and Doubleday are republishing The Stand in the gigantic version in which, according to King, it was originally written. It is an end-of-the-world scenario: a rapidly mutating flu virus is accidentally released from a U.S. military facility and wipes out 99 and 44/100 percent of the world’s population, thus setting the stage for an apocalyptic confrontation between Good and Evil.

The other book is lesser known to me—Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. It’s a crime thriller set in medieval England. It introduces the compelling Adelia—abandoned as a child, adopted by doctors, trained in Salerno (a center of learning), and now a woman of modern sensibilities. She is summoned by King Henry II to investigate a series of gruesome murders that has wrongly implicated the Jewish population, yielding even more tragic results. As Adelia’s investigation takes her behind the closed doors of the country’s churches, the killer prepares to strike again. I picked this one up because I like the historical setting and that it reminds me of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.