Franklin, Ariana Mistress of the Art of Death
G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 2007, 384 p.
I am not normally a mystery reader. I haven't been since the long-ago days of reading Nancy Drew. Which does not mean I never read mysteries; it just means that they are not my first choice, or I stumble on them in the course of looking for something else, am in the course of learning something about a place or a time, or they come recommended.
I came across Carl Hiaasen's hilarious and satiric mysteries, all set in South Florida, where Hiaasen lives, and reports for a Miami newspaper. These mysteries are not only hilarious, but they tell you a lot about some of the kinds of people who live there. And he is also very concerned about what is being done to the local environment, in the name of "progress" or other claims. Since I am also concerned about what is being done to the environment where I live, in the name of "progress" or other claims.
This is a somewhat roundabout way of getting to how I happened to end up reading Mistress of the Art of Death. The author came recommended on a historical fiction website. I didn't pay a whole lot of attention at the time, but about a week after the person's recommendation, I came across her latest effort, and it really looked very interesting. It just so happens that both books are set in medieval England, close to the time period I'm in, in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece. So when I visited the library, as I often do these days, to see if there was anything interesting there, lo and behold, I found Mistress of the Art of Death.
It did not disappoint. Like Hiaasen, Ms. Franklin creates characters with foibles --- very funny ones. And not only that, her characters seem like people you might well meet in East Anglia today(the story is set in medieval Cambridge). And, like Hiaasen, Ms. Franklin is obviously concerned about a number of problems, that still exist today: ignorance, racism, the nature of the justice system, and so on. But it is also wrapped up in what turned out to be a very entertaining story, and her own concerns don't intrude. Readers not interested in these things can safely ignore them; readers interested in aspects of medieval life will probably come away feeling that people living in medieval Cambridge, at least, were not that much different from people living in the present time.
And the central character! Adelia is an orphan girl, raised by some Jews in Salerno, where women are allowed to be trained as doctors in the medical school there. The premise of the plot revolves around the need the king of the time --- Henry II --- has, to protect the Jews of Cambridge, who are virtually imprisoned in Cambridge Castle because children keep disappearing and turning up very, very dead. Which is blamed on the Jews. So he sends for a "master of the art of death" to try to figure out who really "dunnit". What he, and the town of Cambridge gets instead, is Adelia, and a rich cast of characters, including a love interest in the shape of a tax collector who is being considered by the king for a bishopric. Even if one has only the mildest interest in the period, the reader is likely to learn a lot of interesting things by reading the book.
Mistress of the Art of Death does, however, have some flaws. For some, the rather "modern" East Anglian dialect may be grating, as are some things that seem possibly anachronistic(did the Jews living in England at the time really speak Yiddish?). The fact that she doesn't use "Grantabridge"(which was what it was called then), may not sit well with some "accuracy purists". Personally, I have my opinions about such people, but I won't go into them here; that is a subject for another essay. Furthermore, as mysteries go, it is not very "subtle". I could easily spot most of the clues and "red herrings" that exist in just about every book written in this genre. Though most mystery writers end up writing about the characters, the place, or the time in which the mystery takes place, the mystery itself being just a kind of hook to hang these thigns on, the clues --- at least for me --- tend to be "buried" a lot better. On the other hand, the author writes straight "historicals" under another name, and this appears to be her first mystery novel, so perhaps she can be forgiven for not being very "subtle". Overall, however, these flaws seemed relatively minor, at least to me. But then, I'm not normally a mystery reader, and I tend to get fairly impatient with too much subtlety in these things, and I often end up taking a peek at the end to find out "whodunit"
For anyone else, though, it is a good read, and it looks as if there will be more "Adelia" stories coming out in the future. I look forward to reading them.