Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

This is my second book for the Great Transworld Crime Caper and is the first in a series of historical mysteries by the late Ariana Franklin. I knew nothing about this series but Mistress of the Art of Death appealed to me because of the medieval setting (I love books set in medieval England).

This book has an unusual heroine. Her name is Adelia Aguilar and she is a trained doctor, very rare in the year 1171. Adelia is from Salerno, where women are allowed to attend medical school. Her speciality, however, is as a ‘doctor of the dead’ – in other words, she is skilled in performing autopsies and finding out the causes of death. When several young children go missing in Cambridge and the city’s Jews are blamed for the disappearances, Adelia is sent to England to investigate.

As I said, I love reading about medieval history and Franklin touches on many different aspects of the period – from the big things, such as the relationship between the church and the monarchy, to the small, such as the clothes people wore and the food they ate. Adelia, being Italian, is unfamiliar with the politics and customs of 12th century England, which allows the reader to learn along with her – so no need to worry if you don’t have much knowledge of the period. Despite some very modern dialogue and Adelia’s distinctly 21st century thought processes, everything else felt suitably ‘medieval’. Setting and atmosphere are so important in fiction and this is an area in which I thought Franklin excelled. It wouldn’t really be fair for me to comment on the historical accuracy as I haven’t studied the 12th century in any detail but I would say that if you’re looking for a serious piece of historical fiction which is correct in every detail then you need to look elsewhere. Accept this book for what it is though, and it’s an enjoyable read.

The writing in the prologue and opening chapters feels quite light and humorous and I expected the whole book to have the same tone, but when Adelia begins to investigate the mystery things start to feel a lot darker. I should point out that the story does revolve around the abduction and murder of children which isn’t nice to read about; it’s quite graphic in places and a bit disturbing. As for the mystery itself, I didn’t guess who the murderer was, but then I wasn’t really trying to guess. Sometimes I prefer not to attempt to work things out and just enjoy the story – and this was one of those occasions.

I found Adelia a fascinating and engaging character although, as I mentioned earlier, she thought, spoke and behaved more like a woman from the 21st century than the 12th. She’s a strong, independent person who is constantly questioning the role of women in society and has a very modern outlook on medicine, the law and life in general; I liked her but she wasn’t a believable medieval woman. Most of the secondary characters are well-rounded and interesting, particularly Adelia’s housekeeper, Gyltha, and her surly but endearing grandson, Ulf – and I loved the depiction of Henry II.

I enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death and I look forward to being reacquainted with Adelia Aguilar in the other three books in the series. Sadly, Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman) died in January this year aged 77.

I received a copy of this book from Transworld for review.

12 thoughts on “Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

  1. Jo says:

    This sounds really interesting. I love history but never studied 12th Century Medieval.

    Another one to go on the pile to be read!

    I am enjoyed the Transworld Crime Caper.

  2. Mindy says:

    I completely agree with your point about Adelia being more modern than the average medieval heroine. I did like, though, that Franklin recognized this and made at least some effort to both explain away some of Adelia’s differences and to show that other characters saw and reacted to her otherness. I also thought the beginning was fun– I kept finding myself thinking about The Canterbury Tales.

  3. Annie says:

    I really enjoyed this, but unfortunately didn’t feel that the other three lived up to the promise of this first one. The second was especially disappointing so if you do try that and find you feel the same way about it it is worth remembering that the third and fourth are better, although the way she ends the fourth is, I think, a cheap trick.

    • Helen says:

      Sorry to hear the second one isn’t very good – I’ll probably still give it a try sometime but if I don’t enjoy it I’ll bear in mind that the next two are better.

  4. Nicola Slade says:

    Oh goodness, I have to disagree with Annie completely! I read the second book first and found it fascinating, then fell on the rest of the books like a starving man. I had loved Diana Norman’s earlier historical novels, particularly ‘Fitzempress’ Law’ which shows the strength of her feeling for Henry II; then, to find the Adelia books, also featuring Henry, was like stumbling on treasure trove. I’m so sad to think there will be no more books.

    • Helen says:

      I did enjoy this book at the time, but when I read the second one recently I found Adelia very irritating and I probably won’t read any more in the series. I would like to try some of the author’s other books, though.

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