The Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

Saturday, August 07, 2010

What do you get when you combine 12th century British history and CSI?  You get Ariana Franklin's series about Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar!  Mistress of the Art of Death is the first book in the series, though I read the second book, The Serpent's Tale first.  I'm just wacky like that sometimes!

The Mistress of the Art of Death is set in Henry II's England.  In Cambridge, four children have been murdered, and the Catholic majority have decided that it is the city's Jews that are the culprits.  Now, Henry may not really care about religion or tolerance, but he does like the money that he gets from his Jewish merchants, so he orders the Jews brought into the castle in Cambridge for their protection, and sends away to the King of Sicily and his famous medical college in Salerno for a "master of the art of death"-a doctor who understands how to get information from a corpse.  Instead, he gets Adelia and her Saracen manservant.  Forced to pretend that the Saracen is the doctor or be accused of witchcraft, Adelia makes it her mission to find the killer who tortured these children-and it was not anyone from the Jewish community.  She has a long list of suspects, but has trouble narrowing it down until an outbreak of cholera in Cambridge, when Adelia notices the clue that leads to the exciting conclusion.  Adelia isn't the only one that Henry has on the case-he also has his "fixer", Sir Rowly, undercover as a tax collector, investigating the murders, and together these unlikely partners bring justice to the killer.

I read a lot of mysteries.  For a while, when I was a young single mother, that's all I read, because I got them for free from my own mother.  As a result, it's pretty hard to find a plot twist that really surprises me.  Usually I have figured out the answer long before the end.  Not so with either of Franklin's books.  As with The Serpent's Tale, I was pleasantly in the dark about whodunit, and that made the reveal so much more exciting!

But, while I appreciate Franklin's ability to surprise me, what I love most about her books is the way she uses Adelia and her scientific skepticism to explore the state of the world during the Crusades.  Adelia finds 12th century England a barbarous place, where superstition rules over reason and the church uses fake miracles and old bones in reliquaries to control the population.  The Church definitely comes in for scrutiny in this novel, but Franklin makes sure to show that it is the hypocrisy, superstition, and intolerance that Adelia finds wrong, not religious faith itself.  Rowley's account of his time in the Holy Land brings a clarity to what it was like in that part of the world, with Jews and Christians and Muslims all vying for control of the same sacred location-and the resources available there!  Franklin even makes a connection between the treatment of the Muslims in the Crusades with the rise of something new, called Islam, which seems to mirror something of our own time.  This smart, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic mystery is also a smart, funny, tragic history lesson-and well worth the time to read it!


  1. Great review! Thanks for sharing....

  2. I agree with your review. This mystery was so good... well-written, surprising and an interesting look at the Church at that time.
    We read it for my mystery book club and almost everyone enjoyed it.

  3. I have this on my shelf--can't wait to read it!

  4. I really liked this one too! I still need to read The Serpent's Tale :)


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