Once I started to read Mistress of the Art of Death I had to stop reading the others I had on the go, so that I could finish it. Then I was sorry that it was all over. So thank you Ann at Patternings for your recommendation. It’s one of those books that captures my imagination and makes me wish I was doing historical research and could write like Ariana Franklin does.
The book is a murder/mystery book set in Cambridge in 1170 during the reign of Henry II. A child has been murdered and others have disappeared (also found murdered). The Jews are suspected and have been held in the castle for their own safety. Henry is keen to find the culprit, as the Jewish community in Cambridge are major contributors to his exchequer. He enlists the help of investigators from his cousin, the King of Sicily to find the murderer. Thus Simon of Naples comes to England, accompanied by Adelia, a female doctor, who specialises in studying corpses, hence the title of the book. Running the risk of being accused of witchcraft, Adelia cannot openly carry out her investigations in England in the 12th century and has to pretend that Mansur, a Muslim eunuch (her bodyguard) is the doctor. Despite this, she manages to infiltrate into Cambridge life, making friends and finding romance as she does so, not to mention a dramatic episode when her own life is in danger.
This brief description makes the books sound trite, when it is anything but. I loved the start, which is reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, with sketches of the pilgrims returning to Cambridge from Canterbury – nuns, knights with their squires, a tax collector, a merchant and his wife, a minstrel and a prior and three monks, plus the investigators from Sicily.
Here they come. From down the road we can hear harness jingling and can see dust rising into the warm spring sky. Pilgrims returning after Easter in Canterbury. Tokens of the mitred, martyred St Thomas are pinned to cloaks and hats – the Canterbury monks must be raking it in.
Medieval life is vividly brought to life. There are accounts of medical practices and treatments, using reeds as a catheter as one example and of the post mortems of the murdered children carried out in the primitive conditions in medieval England; plus wonderful descriptions of the everyday life of the townspeople, the nuns and the aristocracy. Add to this, details of the religious conflict between Jews and Christians (and also the crusades) and the question of who has murdered the children and why.
All in all, I was enthralled throughout the book and can’t wait to read another one by Ariana Franklin. I see on Amazon that she has also written City of Shadows, a murder mystery set in Berlin in 1922.