Monday, May 26, 2008


Ariana Franklin won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award 2007 for Mistress of the Art of Death.

It is Cambridge in 1171 and a child, Peter of Trumpington, has been murdered and the local Jews blamed for his alleged crucifixion. Chaim, the most prominent Jew in the city and his wife have been slaughtered by the mob and the remaining Jews have taken refuge in the castle. Now two more children are missing, and Henry II is not pleased.

'Am I not good to my Jews, Aaron?'
'You are, my lord. Indeed you are.'

'......The real point is that one-seventh  of my annual revenue comes from taxing you Jews. And the church wants me to get rid of you.'

From the Kingdom of  Sicily and Southern Italy, Simon Menahem of Naples, a renowned investigator, Adelia a woman doctor from the great school of Medicine in Salerno, her speciality the study of corpses, and Mansur, a Marsh Arab are sent 'to deal with some trouble the Jews are having there.'

The missing children are found dead, horribly mutilated, and the trio of investigators are faced with multiple suspects and great personal danger in a cold wet land where Adelia finds it difficult to distinguish between friend and foe, and find a salad.

One has only to look at excellent web sites such as 
Crime Thru Time and a recent review on Euro Crime of Bernard Knight's The Manor of Death by crimficreader to realise the fascination the Medieval period has for crime fiction writers.
I have only a smattering of knowledge about the period and approached reading Mistress of the Art of Death with considerable interest but some reservations. 
Review quotes such as 'CSI meets Canterbury Tales' don't encourage me to read a book, and the thought of a Medieval Kay Scarpetta was intimidating.

But I was pleasantly surprised and after reading the first 200 pages I am deeply engrossed in this alien world of the 12th century. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, the 'Mistress' of the title, is a likeable as well as intelligent character and as a woman in a foreign country surrounded by ignorance and bigotry she cries out for recognition. 

'I am a doctor of Salerno. You will show me respect.'

And because of the considerable amount of research that has gone into the book the situation Adelia finds herself in is very believable.

While the book is set in 1171 some things never change, the presence of serial killers and blaming the Jews for anything and everything seem to be consistent theme whether you are in 12th century Cambridge, or 20th century Berlin.
One thing the book could do with is a glossary of medieval terms as not everyone has a medieval scholar [Mrs Crime Scraps] in the house to explain 'catafalques', 'Montanists', 'Tertullian' and to provide a library of music of the period. 
There is however an excellent web site explaining a lot of the background of the book here.

This book has interesting characters, great atmosphere, lots of historical information and an intriguing mystery. It is one of those books I like to read slowly to enjoy a story that the author has obviously spent a lot of time creating. 
When I finish this book I will move on to the sequel, The Death Maze. 


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