Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Forensic science figures heavily in modern mystery fiction.  Look at the popularity of Patricia Mistress Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books and Kathy Reichs’ Tempe Brennan series.  Franklin has produced a similar heroine – with a twist.  Her character, Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, is a physician trained at the University of Salerno.  What’s unusual is that she’s female, and practicing in the late 1100’s. 

Someone is killing children in Cambridgeshire, England.  King Henry II is quite upset, for more reasons than the obvious.  The Jews of Cambridgeshire are being blamed for the murders and are sequestered in the castle for their own safety.  Not only does Henry have to feed and protect them, but tax revenues flowing into the king’s treasury from some of his wealthiest citizens have ground to a halt.  In addition, Henry is in a very vulnerable position with the church because of all that unpleasantness about Thomas a Becket.  The church could require the expulsion of the Jews from Cambridgeshire, and then what would Henry do?  He turns to his cousin, the King of Sicily, knowing that the best medical minds of Europe are his subjects. Henry asks for a “master in the art of death” to help find the real villain, and save the Jews and therefore the exchequer.  Henry gets the most qualified person for the job – but he certainly wasn’t expecting a woman.

Adelia has to adjust to England, just as the few Englishmen who know her true profession have to make adjustments in their thinking.   Adelia must hide the fact that she is a doctor, and instead maintain the fiction that her Muslim manservant is the physician.  But she manages to practice her trade and also to solve the mystery of the murdered children. 

The book is just as exciting as a modern mystery and, to me, far more interesting for the unusualness of the setting.  There is much indirect information about the crusades and crusaders and the reader learns a lot about the prejudices and beliefs of the common man in 12th century England.  There is also a little romance! 

No mention is made that this book is the beginning of a series, but it certainly could be.  Let’s hope it is.

(Sherrie Antonowicz, Administration)


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