The first time I tried to read this novel, I didn’t make it past the first three or four pages. I was bothered mainly by the tone, which seemed ironic, with an overlay of slapstick thrown in for good measure. But two people whose opinion I value highly urged me to give it another shot. As I often do in cases like this, I decided to try the audiobook. It was the right move, as it turned out. My reservations evanesced as I fell under the spell of Rosalyn Landor’s reading.
Mistress of the Art of Death starts out with a convoluted premise: at the request of England’s King Henry II, the King of Sicily has sent a deputation to Cambridge to investigate a series of murders. The victims were all children, and a hue and cry has been raised against the Jews of the region, in accordance with the allegations of blood libel. One prosperous moneylender has already been killed by a mob; as the novel opens, his co-religionists are under royal protection, waiting out the hysteria behind castle walls.
Henry has need of the Jews because Christians are barred from the practice of lending money with interest. The Jews are, in effect, the kingdom’s bankers. The king wants them cleared of any suspicion that they had a hand in the deaths of the children; once that end is accomplished, they can continue to practice their lucrative and useful profession. He needs a crack team to head up this investigation. He has heard tell that just a such a team could be furnished by the Sicilian monarch. Hence, the deputation, consisting of the rather splendidly named Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar; Simon of Naples, a highly skilled investigator and a Jew; and Mansur, a man of many useful trades and a Saracen.
Adelia, as she is commonly called, began life by very nearly leaving it while but an infant: she was a foundling, taken in and educated by enlightened parents. This little family had the good fortune to be living in Salerno, a city that, in the 1100’s, was tremendously advanced in medical learning and knowledge. Adelia has studied medicine in one of that city’s great institutions of learning. She is passionate about her obligation to relieve suffering, but rendering aid unto the living is not really her area of specialty. She has been trained to “read” the dead. Yes – what we have here basically is a sort of 12th century Kay Scarpetta.. And this was but the first of several premises that, for this reader anyway, required the famous willing suspension of disbelief.
There’s also the problem of Adelia’s precocious knowledge of the healing arts. She tells people to lose weight and get more exercise, to drink only boiled water. Would 12th century medical knowledge in fact be this sophisticated? I don’t know – but I do know that the author’s knowledge of this period is wide and deep, and despite my doubts, I’m inclined, at least in general, to trust to the accuracy of that knowledge.
One other caveat in regard to this novel: Franklin’s descriptions in certain scenes are explicit and gruesome. I’m thinking in particular of Adelia’s descent into what is almost literally the pit of Hell in pursuit of the murderer. There’s a mixture of sex and violence here that is especially revolting. If I had been reading rather than listening, I probably would have skipped ahead at this point.
That said, Adelia comes up with a terrific way to handle her dire situation in that same scene. She’s no match physically for her nemesis, but psychologically – well, that’s another story altogether. Adelia is the archetypal Plucky Heroine. The question is (willing suspension, etc.), is she too aggressively fearless to be credible? Looking at what I just wrote, I realize that it’s not accurate to call Adelia fearless. She was resourceful and courageous, but she was also terrified, and with every reason to be so.
She is also, by this point, in love. I was delighted by this development, but then, throwing a love story into the mix is an easy way for a novelist to win me over, and I suspect this is true for many other readers as well. Once again, though, we must ask the question: is this component of the novel believable? This relationship, and how to handle it, lands Adelia in a quandary: she loves her lover, but she loves being a doctor just as much, if not more. It seemed to me that she was exhibiting a temperament that would do credit to a 21st century feminist! (On the other hand, stranger things happened in the 12th century. See James Burge’s retelling of the immortal – and true! – story of Heloise and Abelard. )
Mistress of the Art of Death is a meaty novel with a large cast of characters and a complicated plot. Ariana Franklin has done a tremendous job of summoning forth the ghosts of medieval England and bringing them to busy, bustling life. This crowded canvas pits me in mind of those wonderful Bruegel paintings in which innumerable little people disappear into the distance – in this case, the distant past.
Mysteries set in the Middle Ages are thick on the ground these days. I’m sure that most readers and writers would agree that Ellis Peters founded this subgenre with her luminous Brother Cadfael novels. A good source of information about crime fiction (and also nonfiction) set in this period is the Medieval Mysteries site.
In an interview in the Fall-Winter 2007 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, Ariana Franklin comments on her fascination with the history of 12th century Europe. “‘ Maybe it was seeing Chartres Cathedral in France that did it for me, or maybe because there’s a beautiful simplicity to its songs and poetry that makes me fell the breath of God on my neck, maybe it was reading T.H. White’s “The Sword and the Stone” when I was a child.'”
Naturally I was reading the above quote and saying to myself – or possibly aloud, As Miss Marple the cat was eyeing me strangely – “Yes! Oh yes!’ It is probably time to re-read The Once and Future King, and also the book by Barbara Tuchman that sparked my own fascination with the Middle Ages: A Distant Mirror.
And it’s always time to view, and view again, Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, The Seventh Seal.