It is late in the 12th century--1170, to be precise. Tensions between the Church and England’s King Henry II are running high, following on the heels of the recent assassination--committed by a group of Henry’s followers--of the (former) Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket, in a dispute over the rights of the Church.
In the midst of this religious turmoil, Henry is also growing exceedingly concerned with an issue which has plagued rulers throughout the ages--that of money, how to collect enough income to effectively continue governing his lands (and the people living therein). For Henry, an important part of that equation centers around a group of people scorned and distrusted by the majority of his subjects--the Jewish population, whose menfolk have proven to have an aptitude for money-lending, and thus, have become quite valuable to the king in terms of producing revenue. The latest snag for Henry is that the Church, already furious with him, has just petitioned the Pope for the removal of all Jews from the realm. The putative reason behind the Church’s request involves a group of children, one of whom was murdered and three others who’ve gone missing from what is now known as Cambridge, whose death/absences have been--rather conveniently--blamed on the Jews. Henry, acting on the advice of a trusted advisor, arranges to have an expert--a so-called “master of the art of death”--go to Cambridge to ferret out the truth--and hopefully, to vindicate his Jewish subjects in the process.
After consulting with his cousin, the King of Sicily, it is arranged that a Jewish advisor, Simon of Naples, will head to Salerno to seek out an appropriate medical expert. Salerno is home to a renowned school of medicine, the University of Salerno, and is known because of it as “the world’s doctor.” If a specialist in the medical aspects of death is required, he will be found in Salerno.
Simon meets with one of the most-respected teachers and works out an agreement to borrow the teacher’s best pupil for his special mission. If only things were as simple as they appear on paper, though... Simon’s first surprise occurs when he meets his newly-formed crew at the boat shortly before departing for England, and finds that it consists of a huge Saracen man and two women. The second surprise--shock, really--comes when Simon learns it is not the Saracen man who is his new expert in matters of death, but the younger of the two women, Adelia Aguilar, who happens to be the esteemed professor’s own daughter. Such is the setting for Ariana Franklin’s fascinating historical mystery, Mistress of the Art of Death.
It matters not that today we think nothing at all of women entering into virtually any and every profession; in the 12th century, women most definitely did NOT go into the study of medicine. (Actually, women didn’t formally go into any study, unless it was conducted in a convent, and even that was not commonplace.) Only in progressive Salerno was it the accepted practice for both men and women to seek knowledge of the workings of the human body; elsewhere, women who endeavored to heal were branded as witches (and subsequently punished or killed). Because of these prevailing attitudes in the rest of the world, Adelia and her comrades are compelled to perform a little charade--the Saracen (who is actually her family’s servant, the eunuch Mansur) acts as the doctor, with Adelia posing as his translator and aid.
Upon landing in England, it is in these roles that the little band joins a group of Cambridgeshirians, returning from Canterbury--and also when Adelia and Mansur encounter their first (and unexpected) practical test.
Prior Geoffrey, one of the many returning from the trek to Canterbury, is in absolute agony, and everyone around him is helpless. (He has even gone so far as to hold and pray over the finger bone of the dead boy--the skeleton of which the nuns at the nearby Abbey are holding in an effort to have him declared a saint. Needless to say, touching the finger bone has done nothing to ease the prior’s pain.) Adelia, though still a student--and one who studies the dead rather than the living, at that--nonetheless feels the call of her profession to aid a hurting fellow human, and arranges for the ailing prior to be carted to a secluded area atop a high hill, whereupon “Dr. Mansur” can examine him privately. Although Adelia’s own studies have only dealt with death, she’s heard stories of the symptoms she now observes... and proceeds, in a rather unorthodox--not to mention uncomfortable--manner, to rid the prior of his problem (an inability to relieve his bladder). Prior Geoffrey’s relief is so great that he vows not only to keep the identities of the investigators secret, but to aid them in any way he can.
Upon reaching town, Geoffrey arranges lodging for the trio--Simon, Mansur, and Adelia (for Adelia’s elderly maidservant had died en route to England, reducing their party to only three)--with an old friend of his, a hardened, no-nonsense eel-seller named Gyltha, and her young grandson, Ulf, who soon become privy to the doctor/assistant charade, as well. Though coarse and gruff, Gyltha and Ulf are “good people”, and have ample reason to want to help: the missing children are all locals, and friends of little Ulf. Or, they were his friends; the very next day the three children’s bodies are all found nearby, laid out almost ceremonially. Adelia now has something to examine.
Although not allowed to do formal autopsies--the public outcry which would ensue if the mostly-uneducated, highly-superstitious townsfolk heard that “Dr. Mansur” had cut open their children’s bodies, would be deafening--Prior Geoffrey arranges for Adelia to view the bodies in secret. What she finds is curious. In different stages of decomposition, the bodies all bear traces of a similar substance. All have been tortured and brutalized in similar ways, too. Adelia is sick at heart after looking at the abused bodies, but understands more than ever the importance of the task before them; their investigation revolves not only around finding the killer, but also preventing the loss of any additional innocent lives.
And so, the curious trio works nearly round the clock. They interview anyone who might have seen the children just prior to their disappearances. They comb the surrounding area, searching for traces. They try to place what they observe and learn into context. For instance, Adelia finds a strange sticky item in one of the children’s hair. Eventually determining that it is a type of candy, from the Middle East, they conclude that the killer must have been on the last Crusade, the only way he’d likely have come into contact with the foreign sweet and learned how to make it. (Of course, such a deduction proves only to be of limited use, since it appears that a goodly portion of Cambridge’s adult male population--from wealthy men to laborers to paupers to those in the Church--had all taken part in the 2nd Crusade.)
As the investigation continues, and the team tries to narrow down the pool of suspects, Adelia makes friends by way of her medical knowledge. Acting as “Dr. Mansur’s” assistant, she treats the nuns at the local convent when an epidemic of cholera fells them. She sees many of the local townspeople, who flock to see Mansur with their various ailments. She visits the embattled Jews, who have been kept cloistered for their own protection in an empty castle (and who haven’t a doctor among them). She even falls into an uneasy friendship with the local tax collector, to her great surprise.
Tensions continue to rise, and the team starts to make some progress--when a shocking turn of events changes everything, and the hunt for the truth couldn’t be more personal to Adelia. One of her new friends is found dead in what appears to be accidental circumstances... but which Adelia is positive is actually murder.
By the time the little team solves the “case”, the reader has been treated to a tale by turns fascinating and thrilling--and always absorbing, one which offers a look into an era we do not all that often encounter in fiction. Chronicles of historic events meld seamlessly with the fictional narrative, giving us a view into a world replete with sights (rugged natural beauties corrupted by the filth of hygienic practices of the era), sounds (those of animals, and the myriad noisy things people did every day), and scents (tempting ones--of cooking food and wildflowers, as well as smells most foul--living in close quarters with animals, the odors of disease, and the lack of sanitation). We see a world in some ways harsher than our own, yet one in which people still ate and laughed, sang and danced, and went about their daily business. The characterizations are equally rich, neither cheapened via stereotypical portrayals, nor overly-modernized (or over-glamorized) to compensate for our sensibilities (which might be offended when faced with a fairly accurate portrayal of the attitudes and practices of yesteryear). Instead, the story has the more grounded feel of reality, of something that could have actually happened, given the right set of circumstances. There is also considerable depth of character, as we get to know not only the main players, but many of the secondary ones, as well. Adelia is particularly compelling, of course, for her intelligence, open-mindedness, and dedication, as well as for her stubbornness and insecurities.
In Mistress of the Art of Death, Ms. Franklin offers a wealth of delights as if laying out a sumptuous feast for her readers. And, as the first book in a series about Adelia Aguilar, it’s wonderful to know that, just as at the banquet in this story, there are still many fine courses yet to enjoy.
GlamKitty rating: 4.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)
GlamKitty rating: 4.75 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)