Monday, December 20, 2010
The Mistress of the Art of Death: Ariana Franklin
I have no idea why I picked up this book. It was on sale and then also on clearance. I was in a mood to read something Victorian. The cover art was interesting. I honestly don't know what compelled me to pick up this book, especially since it's not the kind of thing I normally read, but I'm glad I did!
The story begins with a band of travelers on their way to Cambridge in the twelfth century. Among the travelers is a killer. A murderer and sodomizer of children who has been kidnapping, raping, and murdering children of Cambridge and blaming it on the Jewish community. Also among the travelers is a woman doctor from Salerno, trained in the Art of Death--we would call her a coroner. Adelia, along with Jewish detective Simon and Muslim eunuch Mansur, has been sent to Cambridge by the King of Italy to quietly assist in the case. Determined to unearth the deranged killer and clear the Jews of any wrongdoing, the trio embark on a covert mission to infiltrate the community and learn as much as they can. The list of suspects quickly thins out until even the reader thinks they know whodunnit. However, as any good mystery will do, this story takes a wild turn for the unexpected that will likely leave you shocked and disgusted.
This isn't a new story. It's not even a sort-of-new story. In fact, as the author writes in the Author's Note, there was in fact a string of kidnappings in the twelfth century that was blamed on the Jews. However, what makes this novel so refreshing is the pure talent that Franklin delivers. At first I thought she was simply verbose. So many, many words! And yet it is obvious that author and editor alike have combed this novel within an inch to ensure that every word is necessary. The descriptions are intensely satisfying, reanimating an entire era and culture. The characters are colorful and independent; there is no confusion with overlapping traits as are so often found with lazy contemporary authors. And the villain. It has been awhile since such a monster made it's way into mainstream media. I don't remember an antagonist so humanly grotesque since George Harvey of The Lovely Bones. And I do mean grotesque. Sensitive readers should steer clear!
By far the most interesting character in this novel is Adelia. An educated woman in the twelfth century was most likely to be hanged/drowned/burned for witchcraft. To be a competent woman, trained to put together the pieces of a body's death, carries a stigma even in our "enlightened" 21st century. Adelia is also without faith, believing instead in science, which is one more mark against her favor. She is also young, unmarried, and intentionally celibate. Realistically, she seems more like someone who would exist on the Sarah Lawrence campus in the late 1990's.
While The Mistress of the Art of Death is gruesome, it is also a fantastically crafted thrilling mystery.
Rating: $$.5 (The gore kept it from receiving $$$)