Mistress in the Art of Death


Ariana Franklin


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

May 25, 2008

his is an excellent book. It succeeds in two genres - its a terrific novel of historical fiction, and it is also a great mystery story. The novel is set in 12th century England. A depraved killer has murdered four children in Cambridge and an angry mob accuses the Jews. The leader of the Jewish community is hung from a tree, and when his wife tries to intervene, the mob tears her to pieces. The rest of the Jewish population flees to the castle, where the Sheriff must shelter them from the bloodthirsty town people. The turmoil continues for months, the Jews can not return to their homes.

Henry II, the King of England, is distressed that the Jews are locked inside the castle, because it means they are not performing their normal economic role of merchants, bankers, etc - those roles all produces a large amount of tax revenue. Like any king, Henry II needs tax revenue. So King Henry asks his friend, the King of Sicily, to send Simon of Naples, a reknown investigator (who happens to be Jewish) to England to find the real murderer. Simon of Naples travels to England with two aides: Adelia and Mansur. Adelia is a female doctor from the famous medical school a Salerno, and Mansur is her Saracen bodyguard. Adelia is trained in primitive forensic sciences - she is quite a rarity for these times, she is an educated literate woman.

The novel begins with Adelia's arrival in England. Right away we get introduced to the barbarism and savagery of medieval England. Adelia is menaced by some knights returning from the Crusades, and she must deal with an abbot who has bladder problems.

I like how Mistress in the Art of Death gives an excellent portrayal of the people and living conditions back in the Dark Ages. We see the overwhelming power of the church, we see how superstitious and uneducated people are - but Franklin doesn't just tell us these things, she shows them to us when Adelia wanders around Cambridge trying to ferret out who might have murdered the children. However, despite their rude backgrounds, some of the Cambridge citizens prove to be likeable and interesting characters.

I also really enjoyed the danger to Adelia as she tries figure out who is responsible. She is woman, so she can be ignored, demeaned, or threatened. Plus she is Jewish, and no one trusts a Jew. When Adelia has to act in the capacity of a doctor, she converses with Mansur in Arabic, the pair pretend as if Mansur is instructing her, and not the other way around.

At one point in the tale, one of the characters relates his adventures in the Holy Land while on Crusade. This becomes a key clue in the hunt for the murder, but in itself it is great tale of pursuit and revenge.

There is a romantic thread to this novel as well, as Adelia finds herself thinking about some of the people that she meets as more than just patients or victims. Apparently her studies at Salerno didn't allow much time for worldly entertainments.

I see that a sequel has been published, which is excellent news. I hope that they transform this story into a movie as well, it seems like a surefire Hollywood plot. I read this whole book in just a couple of days because it was so enthralling, this book is highly recommended!