Friday, February 15, 2008

Book Review: "Mistress of the Art of Death" by Ariana Franklin

I have just read another very interesting historical fiction. But I was fooled as I was reading it. Let me clarify that a little, Ariana Franklin writes of murders and death around the year 1171 in Henry II's England. But Franklin uses the prose and style of today's thriller writers mixed in artfully with the language of the time. The story never falters nor did it leave the me confused by archaic language. I guess what I'm trying to say that without the Historical Fiction label this was a great thriller/mystery.

I think the best way to describe the synopsis of the book is to take the tv series CSI and plop the characters down in 12th century England. Adelia Aguilar, a female doctor (unheard of to the Brits, in fact a woman even dabbling in healing would probably be punished as a witch) specializes on listening to the dead and determining cause of death, much like modern medical examiners. Adelia is sent by the King of Sicily to help King Henry II with her companions to root out who is killing the children. The locals are accusing the Jews, but 3 of the 4 murders occured while the Jews were locked in the castle. The Christians don't let this stop their wild stories of Jews taking flight and eating children.

Adelia's companions are Simon of Naples, a Jew and investigator, trusted and employed by various European monarchs to sort out their more intractable problems. Mansur, a Marsh Arab, helped and sheltered by Dr Aguilar who found him running away from the monks who had him castrated as a child in order to preserve his soprano singing voice– a not uncommon occurrence. He is Adelia’s devoted protector.

Not does this book involve the thrill of the chase of tracking down a child killer but the prejudices and superstions of the time are explored and even at times hinder the investigation. The murderer, it is determined, is a returned Crusader, this puts nearly every male in town in suspicion. Even the tax collector Sir Rowley Picot. Notice the "Sir." Sir Rowley was knighted upon taking Henry II's first born's sword to the Holy Land during the crusade. He has his own motivations for tracking down the murderer. These are discovered when he tells his tale of his "adventures" on the Crusades.

There are several humorous occasions in the book to break the dark story line. My favorite, for some reason unknown to me, is when Adelia asked if the coroner looked at the children and the response was (paraphrasing here)yes but he had no info on their death, the coroner has no need to know medical things.

All in all this book has great characterization and the strong female lead character of Adelia at times seems out of place for the century but makes the book that much stronger. If you are a fan of CSI, turn off your TV and pick up this book and get lost in a great thriller.

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posted by Gil T. @ 10:02 PM Comments: 0