Thursday, May 24, 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death

Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, set in 12th century England, is a historical novel that reads more like a modern day thriller centering on the frantic search for a serial killer who has taken the lives of four young Cambridge children. When rumors about the initial murder implicate the local Jewish population, King Henry II is forced to take them under his protection in order to prevent them being slaughtered by his revenge seeking Catholic subjects. King Henry's Jews provide him with much of his tax revenue based on the profits of their money lending activities and it is the choking off of that revenue stream that causes him ultimately to seek the help of his cousin, the King of Sicily.

King Henry II requests that an investigative team be sent to Cambridge to prove that the crimes were not part of any perverse Jewish ritual involving the crucifixion of children and the draining of their blood. 12th century Salerno was home to one of the best medical schools in the world and the King of Sicily was able to send King Henry both the excellent investigator and the "master of the art of death," the earliest known form of medical examiner, whom he requested. But instead of sending his cousin a "master" of the art of death, the King of Sicily sent something even better, a "mistress" of the art of death, one Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar who may be the finest medical examiner ever produced by the Salerno school.

Adelia soon realizes that 12th century England is a more primitive and superstitious place than the one she left behind. But working with Simon, the investigator with whom she has been paired, Adelia manages to produce a short list of suspects despite the limitations placed upon her own investigative activities because of her sex. Unfortunately for Adelia and Simon, the danger to their own lives grows in proportion to the progress they make in their efforts to name the sexually depraved killer who has preyed on the children of Cambridge for more than a year.

In Mistress of Death, Ariana Franklin has combined the best traits of historical fiction with the attributes of a modern day thriller and it works beautifully. She fills the book with the historical details and background of everyday life that make the reader of good historical fiction feel like a time traveler. But, at the same time, she is slowly and steadily building the tension of her story to the point that the reader finds himself rapidly turning page after page in anticipation of the ultimate revelation. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, mysteries or thrillers. And, if you're like me and enjoy all three of those genres, you will have hit the jackpot.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. Sounds like an interesting novel. I might have to check it out.

    First Joyce Carol Oates now this. The longer I stick around here the longer my TBR list becomes! :)

  2. I had fun with it, Matt. It's nothing real deep when it comes to history but it does touch on the problems that King Henry was having with the Catholic Church and on the assassination of the archbishop of Canterbury. It turned out to be much more of a thriller than I had anticipated it to be.

  3. My library is waiting for delivery of this one; I cannot preorder until it is physically on the premises. I have a feeling I am going to enjoy this one, :)

  4. My guess, Nick, is that you will really like this one. I'm sure that you have a better grasp on ancient English history than most American readers have, but it read as fairly "authentic" to me. Let me know if I'm wrong. :-)