It is late in the 12th century–1170, to be precise. Tensions between the Church and England’s King Henry II are running high, following on the heels of the recent assassination–committed by a group of Henry’s followers–of the (former) Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, in a dispute over the rights of the Church.
In the midst of this religious turmoil, Henry has become exceedingly concerned with an issue which has plagued rulers throughout history: money. For Henry, a sizable portion of his revenue production comes from a group of people scorned and distrusted by the majority of his subjects–the Jewish population, whose menfolk have proven to have an aptitude for money-lending, and thus, have become quite valuable to the king. Henry’s current problem originates once again with the Church–already furious with him over Becket’s murder–which has just petitioned the Pope for the removal of all Jews from the realm. The putative reason behind the Church’s request involves a group of children, one of whom was murdered and three others who’ve gone missing from the area now known as Cambridge. The death of one child and the absences of the others have been–rather conveniently–blamed on the Jews, for their rumored hatred of Gentile children. Henry not only finds that notion ridiculous, but a serious threat to his rule, as well, since losing the revenue the money-lenders provide would prove detrimental to the royal coffers. And so, it is this troublesome situation which finds the king, acting on the advice of a trusted advisor, arranging to have an expert–a so-called “master of the art of death”–go to Cambridge to ferret out the truth… hopefully vindicating his Jewish subjects in the process.
After consulting with his cousin, the King of Sicily, it is settled that a Jewish advisor–Simon of Naples–will head to Salerno for the purpose of seeking out the appropriate expert on death. Salerno is home to the University of Salerno–a renowned school of medicine–and is considered, at the time, “the world’s doctor.” If a specialist in the medical intricacies of death is required, he will be found in Salerno.
Simon meets with one of the most-respected teachers there and works out an agreement to borrow the teacher’s best pupil. Alas, things are never as simple as they appear on paper, though, as Simon soon discovers. His first surprise occurs when he meets his newly-formed team at the boat departing for England… only to find that it consists of a huge, dark-skinned Saracen man and two women. The second surprise–shock, really–comes when Simon learns it is not the Saracen man who is his new expert in matters of death, but the younger of the two women, Adelia Aguilar (who also happens to be the esteemed professor’s own daughter). And thus begins Ariana Franklin’s fascinating historical mystery, Mistress of the Art of Death.
It matters not that today we think nothing at all of women entering into virtually any and every profession; in the 12th century, women most definitely did NOT study medicine. (Actually, women didn’t formally go into any study, unless it was conducted in a convent, and even that wasn’t the norm.) Only in progressive Salerno was it acceptable for both men and women to seek knowledge of the inner workings of the human body; elsewhere, women who sought to heal were branded as witches (and subsequently punished or killed). Because of the prevailing attitudes in the rest of the world, Adelia and her comrades are compelled to perform a little charade–the Saracen (in reality her family’s servant, a eunuch who goes by the name Mansur) will pose as the doctor, with Adelia acting as his translator and aid.
Upon landing in England, it is in these roles that the little band joins a group of Cambridgeshirians returning from Canterbury–and also when Adelia and Mansur encounter their first (and unexpected) practical test. Prior Geoffrey, one of the many returning home, is in absolute agony. (He even tried the questionable cure of holding and praying over a finger bone of the dead boy, the skeleton of which the nuns at the nearby Abbey have been holding while trying to have him declared a saint. Needless to say, this “treatment” failed miserably.) Adelia, though still a student–and one who studies the dead rather than the living, at that–feels compelled to help, and has the ailing prior carted to a secluded area atop a high hill, whereupon “Dr. Mansur” can examine him privately. Although her own studies have only dealt with death, she’s heard stories of the symptoms she now observes… and proceeds, in a rather unorthodox–not to mention uncomfortable–manner, to rid the prior of his rather personal problem. The holy man’s subsequent relief is so great that he vows not only to keep the identities of the investigators secret, but to aid them in any way he can.
Once the party reaches town, Geoffrey secures lodging for the trio–Simon, Mansur, and Adelia (for Adelia’s elderly maidservant had died en route to England, reducing their party to only three)–with an old friend of his, a hardened, no-nonsense eel-seller named Gyltha, and her young grandson, Ulf, who soon become privy to the doctor/assistant charade, as well. Though coarse and gruff, Gyltha and Ulf are “good people”, and have ample reason to want to help: the missing children are all locals, and friends of little Ulf. Or, they were his friends; shortly after their arrival, the three children’s bodies are found nearby, laid out almost ceremonially. Adelia now has something to examine.
Although not allowed to do formal autopsies–the public outcry which would ensue if the mostly-uneducated, highly-superstitious townsfolk heard that “Dr. Mansur” had cut open their children’s bodies, would be deafening–Prior Geoffrey arranges for Adelia to view the bodies in secret. In different stages of decomposition, the bodies all bear traces of a similar substance. All have been tortured and brutalized in similar ways. The investigation isn’t only about finding the killer of one child, but also about preventing the loss of any more innocent lives… for it appears that a serial killer is on the loose.
Meanwhile, the bookish Adelia makes friends by way of her medical knowledge. Acting as “Dr. Mansur’s” assistant, she treats the nuns at the local convent when an epidemic of cholera fells them. She sees many of the local townspeople, who flock to Mansur with their various ailments. She visits the embattled Jews, who’ve been kept cloistered for their own protection in an empty castle (and who haven’t a doctor among them). She even falls into an uneasy friendship with the local tax collector (to her immense surprise).
Just as the team seems to be making headway in their investigation, a shocking turn of events changes everything. Suddenly, the hunt for the elusive killer is personal for Adelia, when one of her new friends is found dead in what appears to be accidental circumstances… but which Adelia is positive is actually murder.
By the time the little team solves the “case”, the reader has been treated to a mesmerizing tale full of fascinating period detail and thrilling twists. Chronicles of historic events meld seamlessly with the fictional narrative, giving us a view into a world replete with sights (rugged natural beauties corrupted somewhat by the filth and lack of hygiene), sounds (those of animals, and the myriad noisy things people did every day), and scents (tempting ones–of cooking food and wildflowers, as well as smells most foul–living in close proximity to livestock, the odors of disease, and the lack of sanitation). We see a world harsher than our own, yet one in which people still ate and laughed, sang and danced, and went about their daily business. The characterizations are equally rich, neither cheapened by resorting to stereotypical portrayals, nor overly-modernized (or over-glamorized) to compensate for our sensibilities (which might be offended by a fairly accurate depiction of the attitudes and practices of the day). Instead, the story has the more grounded feel of reality, of something that could have happened, given the right set of circumstances. There is considerable depth of character, as well, as we get to know not only the main players, but many of the secondary ones. Adelia is particularly compelling, of course, for her intelligence, open-mindedness, and dedication, and for her stubbornness and insecurities.
In Mistress of the Art of Death, Ms. Franklin offers a wealth of delights as if laying out a sumptuous banquet for her readers. As the first book in a series about Adelia Aguilar, it’s fabulous to know that, just as at the feast portrayed in this story, there are still many more fine courses to enjoy.
Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Art of Death Series [Mystery]
This book was purchased by GlamKitty.
Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Art of Death Series [Mystery]
Mistress of the Art of Death – 2007
The Serpent’s Tale – 2008
Grave Goods – 2009
A Murderous Procession – 2010
Visit Ariana Franklin’s Website