Monday, October 11, 2010

Mistress of the Art of Death Review

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

From the book jacket

In medieval Cambridge, four children have been murdered. The Catholic townsfolk blame their Jewish neighbors, so to save them from the rioting mob, the Cambridge Jews are placed under the protection of the king. Henry II is no friend to of the Jews – or anyone, really – but he believes in the law and order, and he desperately needs the taxes he receives from Jewish merchants. Hoping scientific investigation will help catch the true killer, Henry calls on his cousin, the King of Sicily – whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe – and asks for his finest “master of the art of death,” the earliest form of medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno, an expert in the science of anatomy and the art of detection. But her name is Adelia; the king has been sent a “mistress of the art of death.”

In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia faces danger at every turn. As she examines the victims and retraces their last steps, she must conceal her true identity in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she’s assisted by one of the king’s tax collectors, Sir Rowley Picot, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. A former Crusader knight, Rowley may be a needed friend – or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia’s investigation takes her along Cambridge’s shadowy river paths, and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again…

Franklin does a wonderful job of bringing the setting to life. It is filled with suspicion and hate, intolerance and superstition. It is a dark dangerous place but you also get to see the hope and the good of the people who Adelia meets along the way. The acts committed against the children are bloody and horrid and they are often described in detail. And Adelia, being a doctor and trying to be impersonal, talks about the things that were done in cold scientific facts that gives both the crimes and her a hard edge. Adelia is a woman in a field where women are not accepted and she has had to learn not only to deal with the hard facts of her profession but also with working under the constraints place upon her by society. To do that she thinks of herself not as a woman but as a doctor and sometimes I think she pushed the point too hard and too often and her constant reminders of who she is and what she knows makes her come off as pompous. A romance develops that you can see coming and I don’t know that it adds much to the story but it doesn’t detract from it either. The ending is rather sensational and dramatic as compared to the rest of the book. And maybe it is not completely historically accurate but any faults I found in the story I was able to overlook because it was enjoyable to read. Adelia and the characters around her, including the dog, are interesting and well drawn. The reader is provided with a good picture of the world of the time and the thoughts and politics of the people. There are enough suspects and danger and clues to make the mystery fun to follow. And it is even alright if you can figure out a few things before you are told because you will still want to read through to the end.

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