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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

CSI Meets The Canterbury Tales in 12th Century Murder Mystery

When I first read about the R.I.P. II Challenge, one book popped into my head: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. Its menacing cover just screams Halloween. Halfway through the book, however, I realized it wasn't that type of story. Not that it wasn't scary, it was, just not in a haunted house kind of way. It's scary in more of a deranged-killer-on-the-loose way. Come to think of it, perhaps those are the scariest stories out there, so maybe this was the perfect pick after all...

Picture this. The year is 1171. The place: Cambridge, England. The problem: Children are disappearing from the town. When one of the children's corpse is found on the lawn of a wealthy Jewish usurer, all Hell breaks loose. A mob murders the homeowners, forcing the town Prior to herd all Jews into the castle for their own protection. This causes problems for Henry II, King of England, whose purse suffers every day the Jews are confined. The solution: Clearly, a master of death (the 12th Century equivalent of a medical examiner) is needed to study the body for clues and find the responsible party. The problem with the solution: An expert is sent from Salerno, Italy - a town renowned for its medical school - only the doctor is not a master of death, but a mistress of death, in the form of Adelia Aguilar. While Adelia has been schooled in medicine, her real expertise lies not in treating the living, but in examining the dead. Thus, the King of Sicily orders her to investigate the deaths in England, a country where women healers are routinely burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft. Thus, Adelia and her two companions - her Saracen servant Mansur and the king's investigator, Simon of Naples - are forced into a charade where Mansur is the physician and Adelia is but an assistant. Although they are determined not to call attention to themselves, the three gain notoriety on the journey to Cambridge when Adelia deftly cures the Prior of a bladder infection. When word spreads, Adelia and Mansur find themselves inundated with patients. Adelia tries desperately to keep up the charade while helping the sick and investigating the children's murders. Another problem with the solution: Although Adelia is sadly lacking in bedside manner and femininity, she is not invisible to men. In fact, she has attracted the attention of tax collector Sir Rowley Picot, a jolly man who shows an unusual interest in the murdered children. His presence disconcerts Adelia, who increasingly suspects him to be the killer. The rest of the story: As Adelia and her companions come closer to finding the murderer, they find themselves in increasing danger. Adelia fears, in particular, for her young friend, Ulf. When he disappears from town one day, desperation overcomes her. Can Adelia save him as she couldn't save the other kids? Can she trust Sir Rowley with her secrets? Her life? Her heart? And, most importantly, can she find the killer, absolve the Jews, and return to her beloved Salerno? Or will she find herself the victim of a lunatic bent on terrorizing women and children?

One reviewer described Mistress of the Art of Death as "CSI meets The Canterbury Tales," and it is exactly that. The atmosphere is all Canterbury Tales, with vivid period detail and a cast of quirky knights, nuns and clergymen; but the plot is as taut and suspenseful as an episode with Gil Grissom and friends. It took me a chapter or two to get used to Franklin's style (I considered reading with a dictionary next to me, since she employed words I had never even seen before), but once I did, I was hooked. I literally could not put this book down until I finished it. Although I had the guilty party (or is it parties?) figured out long before Adelia did, there were plenty of other plot twists to keep me on the edge of my seat.

A warning: This book is not for the squeamish. It's also not for those who want to get something done, because trust me, you won't be able to complete anything until you finish this book.


  1. What a fabulous review! This book sounds just the thing for me to read. Thanks.

  2. The Canterbury Tales comparison has me hooked right away, and the cover on the book is wonderful. Great review.

  3. I read this a month or two ago.

    And oh my god-towards the end, when she finds the killer, the book suddenly got so incredibly creepy.

    I was midway through it, when my roomies decided to go for a walk, and the sun was setting. I decided to go for a walk with them, rather than be home alone!

    But then, at the very end, I was mad at Ariana (I'm sure you can imagine why), so now I don't know if I'll pick up the sequel.

  4. I loved this book when I read it not too long ago!

  5. Oooh - there's going to be a sequel? Didn't know that. The book does get creepy, and the cave scene was downright disgusting. That's why I said it's not for the feint of heart/stomach.

    Eva - it's funny that you were mad at Adelia in the end. I'm pretty traditional, so I didn't agree with her decisions either. The book does have a definite feminist bent, doesn't it?

  6. I read this too, just a week or so ago. I thought it was one of the best things I'd read in ages and enjoyed your review of it. (Our cover in the UK is very different, btw.) Franklin has also written books as 'Diana Norman' - historicals without the crime element - my favourite of which is The Vizard Mask.

  7. I read it a couple of months ago and loved it. I will be reading the sequel.

  8. Cath - I just checked out your review of this book. The U.K. cover is A LOT different. I didn't know Ariana Franklin also wrote as Diana Norman. I'll have to check those books out. Hopefully, they're available in the States.

  9. For someone who doesn't like creepy books, I've sure been finding a lot to read from this challenge. I like the charade idea in this story. It sounds like an interesting sub plot.

  10. Well, the book sounded fabulous until you got to the warning about it being "not for the squeamish." I am the squeamish, unfortunately. Darn, it sounded so good!!!

  11. Mistress of the Art of Death impressed me, especially since I’ve always been apprehensive about historical crime fiction. But Mistress … does a neat job of keeping itself accessible to contemporary sensibilities while remaining a plausible take of 12th-century England. I’d call that quite a feat, and I look forward to reading the second book in the series.

    The romance was not my favorite part of the novel, especially since romance is not my genre. But I will give Ariana Franklin credit for having some fun with it. I rolled my eyes when she made it appear that Adelia was going to find and marry her Shining White Knight. Then I rolled my eyes again when Franklin had Adelia turn him down, because I thought I was running into a bit of feminist tendentiousness. But I smiled when Franklin came up with a happy medium between marriage and refusal!

    There might be a small anachonism in the book, other than the ones that the author herself acknowledges in her afterword. I'll investigate, but the book still gets a big thumbs-up from me.

    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"


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