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.)