This absorbing suspense novel that takes place in medieval times won the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. Ellis Peters, you may know, is the author of the Brother Cadfael series – mysteries that take place in the mid-twelfth century.
Mistress of the Art of Death also takes place in the twelfth century, albeit a bit later than the Peters books. But there are some significant differences. The main one is that the herbal expert, healer, and sleuth is a female from Salerno – Adelia Aguilar – who is also, and primarily, a forensic specialist into causes of death.
In 1171, four young children in Cambridge have been brutally mutilated and murdered. Their deaths have been staged to appear as if they were carried out by the Jews of the town, and two prominent members of the Jewish community have already been killed by scared and angry Cambridge residents. The King, Henry II, derives significant tax income from the Jews, and does not want his monetary flow disrupted. Therefore he procures the services of Adelia along with her detective companion, Simon of Naples, and her bodyguard, Mansur, an Arab, in the hope they can ferret out the actual perpetrator of these heinous crimes.
As with many other mystery/thrillers, Adelia soon finds her own life in danger as she draws closer to solving the horrible crime of the killer of the children.
Evaluation: There are a couple of oddities about this novel. In some senses, Adelia could be placed into a novel set in 2010 without much being changed besides her clothing and maybe the addition of a cell phone. Unlike Brother Cadfael, who seems very much a man of his times, Adelia seems very much a woman of our times. Her dialogue, thoughts, attitudes, and behavior seem much more characteristic of a very liberated modern woman than of a well-educated but medieval female of the twelfth century.
Also, Franklin both begins and ends the novel with a sort of off-putting (to me) style that reads like the fade-in and fade-out of a screen play. I was glad I persevered and got past the beginning, but I’m not sure why she felt the need to introduce and end her story in such an awkward way.
On the other hand, there were elements of the book I liked very much. The supporting cast of characters is delightful, from Prior Geoffrey and his enlarged prostrate, to the down-to-earth and savvy servants Gyltha and her grandson Ulf who speak in a charming East Anglian patois.
Franklin also offers a macro-perspective on the role of the church in medieval society as well as its politicization which is largely missing from the Brother Cadfael books.
Third, I like the level of tension over who might have been responsible for the killings, and who might be next. And there is a romance of opposites that provides some humor in addition to – well – romance!
Overall, I enjoyed the book and intend to get the sequel. But if one prefers more authenticity (at the cost of less suspense), I might recommend the Brother Cadfael series.
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007