Books: Mistress of the Art of Death

The title of the audiobook, Mistress of the Art of Death, didn’t particularly appeal to me – it sounded like it might be one of those vampire novels so strangely popular these days. But then I picked up a different title by Ariana Franklin, a historical fiction novel which looked interesting. When I saw that it was a follow-up to Mistress of the Art of Death, of course I had to check that one out first.

Adelia Aguilar is a forensics pathologist, but she has few of the resources available to Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, for the simple reason that she lives in the twelfth century. Trained at the medical school in Salerno, she is sent with a (Jewish) investigator to find out who is murdering children in Cambridge, England, both to put an end to the heinous killings and to absolve the Jews who have been accused of ritual murder.

I enjoy both mysteries and historical fiction, so it wasn’t at all hard to enjoy this book. With the exception of a few parts, that is. While there is less gruesome detail than in a few crime thrillers I have read (and in those cases I don’t read any more books by the same author), the descriptions of what the children must have suffered leave mental pictures I could do without.

While I have read quite a number of historical novels set in the Middle Ages, I don’t recall reading any before that dealt with the character of Henry II of England. I didn’t even remember that he was the king whose angry words led his knights to kill Thomas Becket, until it was mentioned near the beginning of the novel.

I first heard of Thomas Becket when my father was in a production of Murder in the Cathedral at the church we attended. I later read the play for one of my history classes in high school, and I suppose we must have learned something of the issues involved but not in much depth, I think. Perhaps influenced by Eliot’s play, I had always thought of the king as the villain in that matter.

As the novel moves away from Henry and focuses on the murders in Cambridge, I had thought he had served no purpose other than to get Adelia into England. (Henry wants the Jews cleared of the charge of murder so they can get back to making money and paying taxes, which make up a significant amount of his revenues.) But he reappears later, in the context of determining how justice will be served.

Who has final authority, when a member of a religious order is accused of a crime – Church officials or the king? This was a key issue in the quarrel between Henry and Thomas Becket. I had always heard the matter framed as one of freedom of conscience, but Franklin reframes it here as one of justice, whether the same law applies to everyone or if some can hide behind their status in the Church.

Franklin closes the novel with a brief account of the reforms which Henry II made to the criminal justice system. I had not realized before that he can reasonably be considered the founder of English Common Law. In an Afterword, Franklin expresses the hope that people will come to see all the good that Henry accomplished, rather than judging his whole reign by what happened to Thomas Becket.

As for other aspects of history referenced in the novel, I am curious about the school of medicine at Salerno. It is true that it is first known medical school, and that women were permitted to study and practice medicine. But would Adelia really have had the opportunity to learn forensic medicine from studying the corpses of pigs? And what about some of the other medical knowledge she displayed?

A number of reviews of the novel mention numerous anachronisms, and knowing little of the history of the era I can only assume that they are correct in this. Like many readers, however, I am not particularly bothered by it. I don’t assume that I know historical facts from reading historical fiction, but the supposed facts offered generate an interest in knowing more.

Another complaint of many readers is that Adelia’s attitudes in many ways seem very modern. Women’s freedom, science vs. religion, compassion for the mentally ill – it’s not impossible that a 12th century woman could have such attitudes, but how likely is it? Several complain that Franklin basically took a modern woman and set her in 12th century Europe.

I found myself feeling skeptical about that sometimes, but it didn’t keep me from enjoying the story. And it won’t keep me from checking out the next one in the series.

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