Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

   Mistress of the Art of Death is an historical crime story which I have read for my Book Club. The first thing that struck me was the pace. It seemed to start at a breakneck speed but luckily for me, it steadied down. Set in Cambridgeshire in 1171, it sets the scene with a series of child murders and mutilations which have been blamed on the Jewish community. King Henry II is aware that he relies on the Jews for much of his taxes and he is anxious to find out who did commit the murders.  The Jews have taken refuge in a castle nearby.

     The King of Sicily sends three people to investigate: Simon, (their leader and a Jew), Mancur (an Arab who is there to protect and provide a cover for Adelia) and Adelia who is the main protagonist. She has qualified as a doctor in Salerno, and her specialism is that she examines the dead. Such a thing is unheard of in medieval England and to avoid accusations of witchcraft, Mancur poses as the doctor and she appears to be his translator and assistant. The truth behind the grisly, serial murders gradually unfolds, with plenty of red herrings to divert the reader.

    There are several strands within the novel. For the first part, it has the crime plot which gives it its structure and reason d'être. In addition, it gives us a flavour of what life was like in medieval England and the attitudes of the people towards different religions and foreigners. Part of the story involves descriptions of the Crusades. The most interesting aspect for me was the depiction of Adelia herself. Her character was fairly rounded, if modern in tone, and we were privy to her thoughts and motivations. As an independent, educated and skilled woman, she had to go along with the pretence that a male was the doctor but she had a great deal of subtlety in how she approached people. Lastly there is a romance sub plot which I was less interested in though it did show us aspects of Adelia's character.

    The Mistress of the Art of Death is a whodunnit which I read largely in one go through to the end. It creates suspense and enjoyment and I would read some of the subsequent books in this series as in Adelia we have a central character about whom I think the author has more to say.

In short: an entertaining if rather grisly and morbid read.  
     

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