Words of Wisdom

Miss Prim came across a fantastic quote that she asked me to share:

“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

–Neil Gaiman


Spending Time with the Mistress of the Art of Death


Every so often I read a book that I need to gush about. Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death is one of them.

The year is 1171 A.D. (or C.E.), Henry II is on the English throne, and a series of horrific crimes prevents Henry from receiving the tax revenue he adores. He calls on a friend, the King of Sicily, to send a band of investigators from Salerno to visit England and investigate the crimes “under the radar.” A medical examiner is necessary to determine causes of death and other details that may reveal the murderer’s identity. That expert in the “art of death” is Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, whose profession (doctor and coroner) would label her a witch in England.

In many ways, this book reminded me of the historical novels of Norah Lofts, not only in terms of its ability to make history come alive, but also in its terrific characters and the author’s sheer storytelling ability. Franklin doesn’t skimp on the details of these hardscrabble (and sometimes vicious) times, but at the same time she manages to create warm relationships among the characters, relationships marked by respect, and affection, and admiration. I particularly liked Prior Geoffrey (a down-to-earth cleric who nevertheless foams at the mouth when talking about a rival prioress), Gyltha, Simon of Naples, and of course Adelia herself.

I stayed up past my usual bedtime several nights in a row, just to enjoy the writing, the story, the history. I figured out who the killer was, but I always take that as a sign of fair play on the writer’s part. If you decide to pick this one up, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (Just a fair warning that there is some gruesome violence against children that is hard to take.)

Midnight in the Garden of Cape Cod

CapeCodI recently was invited to visit a friend whose parents own a house on Cape Cod. What a wonderful place. There is a cemetery behind the house that provides good inspiration for anyone who likes to read or write anything spooky or suspenseful.

The angel pictured here reminded me of John Berendt’s classic MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL.

There is a good, creepy story here. When my friend was younger, he was approached in his backyard by a kindly old man asking if he’d seen “Samuel.” My friend turned to stop his dog from barking–and the man disappeared. At another time, my friend’s brother-in-law saw something late at night that freaked him out: an apparition in the backyard calling for “Samuel.”

I was reminded, too, that Mary Higgins Clark’s first best-seller, WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?, is set on Cape Cod. That was the first book of hers that I ever read, and I still think of it as a model for how to write suspense. In those days there was no Internet, so when I came across references to a “widow’s walk” on the Cap Cod houses, I had to ask my parents what a widow’s walk is. Finally, decades later, I have seen REAL Cape Cod houses with REAL widow’s walks.  Cool.

Speaking of Mary Higgins Clark … the Great Lady and I live not too far apart. I sometimes see her having dinner with friends or family at a local pizza joint, Nellie’s.  My part of NJ is home to a lot of great mystery writers–Harlan Coben is here, too, though I haven’t ever bumped into him in public.