Thursday, June 4, 2009

Readers travel back to 12th century England in the mystery novel Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. In the city of Cambridge (although apparently it wasn't actually called Cambridge at the time the events in the novel take place), children are disappearing and later being found dead and horribly mutilated. The city's Jews are blamed for the atrocities, and confined to a castle, unable to do business or pay taxes. The lack of revenue induces the King to send to Italy for help. Help arrives in the person of Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar (we are inexplicably reminded of this unwieldy moniker numerous times), a female doctor from Salerno who has trained as what would today be called a forensic scientist. She is accompanied by Mansur, a "Saracen" who acts as a bodyguard, and the Jewish Simon of Naples.

Because the role of women was very limited at that time, Adelia pretends to be the interpreter for "Dr. Mansur" as he treats patients. During this time, she is also questioning people and attempting to gather facts about the murders. At the same time, she is a short-tempered and somewhat unpleasant person to be around. The story really bogs down around the middle when the author has a character go off into an extended personal narrative/history lesson about the Crusades. Later, the mystery novel unnecessarily descends into a somewhat overheated romance novel. Although Adelia suspects (she claims) nearly every male in town of being the murderer, when his true identity is finally revealed, it isn't much of a surprise. This is the first novel in what is so far a series of three. Although the story was interesting and suspenseful at times, something I found jarring was the use of words throughout the story that seemed totally out of place for the time period ("cosmopolitan" and "stuff" are two that come to mind). It all added up to an uneven read -- at times interesting, at times frustrating, but overall a disappointment.
Final Verdict for Mistress of the Art of Death: Two Gherkins, for bringing to light an interesting historical time period, but with uninspiring characters


Michelloui said...

Interesting review. I really enjoy historical fiction as I feel it really helps one appreciate a place to understand its past as well as its present. But not if the novel isn't interesting enough to spend time on it!

Lisanne624 said...

Well, you might want to give it a try . . . I was just expecting more of a mystery without the digressions into romance and a history of the Crusades. But that's just me! :)

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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