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Ariana Franklin: Mistress of the Art of Death [Feb. 1st, 2015|06:01 pm]

The back cover says "Winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Award for Historical Crime Novel of the Year 1171." The CWA is an organisation with a long history, but this is ridiculous.

In fact it won the award in 2007, so I don't know why it has taken me so long to read it. Perhaps I resisted it because I heard about it from a client who was a friend of the author, and reacted perversely. It has been known. Ariana Franklin (real name Diana Norman, married to film critic Barry Norman) died in 2011. Then, some time ago (and I've just spent longer than I should have, trying and failing to work out just how long ago), I was at a mini-festival of crime fiction at the Lit & Phil where one of the guests was Samantha Norman, who had been completing the book left unfinished by her mother at her death (this must have been Winter Siege). When the panel were invited to read a passage from their latest book, she chose instead to read a passage from her mother's writing, in which Adelia Aguilar, the eponymous Mistress of the Art of Death is introduced. This struck me as a little odd (and I assumed at the time it was from the book she was working on; all the odder since I now realise it can't have been) but it was intriguing and well written, and made me a lot more interested in reading the books. So when a fellow member of the Graphic Novels Reading Group offered to lend me this one, I was happy to accept.

It is, I now see, a book you would want to lend to people so that you could discuss it with them afterwards.

It starts with a prologue:
Here they come. From down the road we can hear harness jingling and see dust rising into the warm spring day.

Pilgrims returning after Easter in Canterbury. Tokens of the mitred, martyred St Thomas are pinned to cloaks and hats - the Canterbury monks must be raking it in...
It's a lovely, breezy, conversational piece. You can see the procession, bright and detailed as an illuminated manuscript, and you can hear the author's voice, sly as Chaucer himself, confiding just in you. But before you settle down to a nice cosy murder mystery, there's a catch: one of these pilgrims is a murderer, a killer of children. Right from the start, the author sets out her terms: this is going to be a serial killer story, but it is also a classic detective story, a puzzle to be solved, complete with a challenge to the reader - one of this group of characters is the killer, but can you work out which one?

This dual vision - the lightness of tone, the darkness of subject matter - is maintained throughout. Adelia Aguilar is a doctor, but her specialism is the post mortem examination (that 'Mistress of the Art of Death' is only a slight misrepresentation), and she is shown at work, studying the bodies of the murdered children with such means as might reasonably be at her disposal in twelfth century Sicily.

How plausible is this, and how much of an anachronism? Ariana Franklin has a neat way of side-stepping the question. Yes, there is much about Adelia which is out of place in medieval England. She is a foreigner here, and provides a convenient intermediary through whom things can be explained to a modern reader. And even in her native Salerno, where (the internet suggests) women were allowed to study medecine, her back story makes her into someone exceptional. She is, after all, the heroine of the story.

There were points - most of them points of detail, of use of language - which struck me as anachronistic. As Adelia becomes familiar with the city of Cambridge, and its Jewish quarter or Jewry, she reflects that despite the generally protected status of Jews in England, this separate quarter is effectively a ghetto - in modern English, it's a good word to express the idea, but it does stand out as modern English. Notices in the convent church express dates in years AD ":In the year of Our Lord 1138, King Stephen confirmed the gift..." rather than in regnal years - well, perhaps it has been converted (as it has been put in Arabic numbers) for the reader's benefit. "The town and its people swam in pale-gold effervescence like the wine from Champagne," though the fizz in champagne was not tamed until the 17th century, and while it did occur earlier from time to time, it was a fault, not a feature. But make allowances for Adelia, who is in love...

I have nothing to say about the romance aspect of the plot; I found it predictable, and unnecessarily protracted. There is a grand action finish, in which Adelia is endangered and is rescued in the nick of time (not a spoiler, I hope, because this is not the sort of book in which the protagonist does not make it out alive - and anyway, there are sequels) but have faith in Adelia: she knows what she is doing. T might have been annoyed by the appearance of Henry II as a sort of deus rex ex machina, but I wasn't - on the contrary.

I also enjoyed her descriptions of medieval Cambridge, and of the fens round about.

Do I recommend this book? Well, how squeamish are you about bodies and nasty murders described in vivid if indirect detail? Will you spot glaring anachronisms that I missed? Will they spoil your enjoyment? Your mileage may vary: but I'll be looking out for the next in the series.