Mistress of the Art of Death

Written by Ariana Franklin
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson

Adelia, who has studied medicine in Salerno, Sicily, is selected by the King of Sicily to accompany Simon of Naples, a man renowned for his detecting skills, to England. In Cambridge, the Jews are accused of crucifying a young boy. Henry II is most displeased, as the Jews are now taking refuge in the castle, unable to attend to business and therefore increase the king’s coffers. He would have the true killer found. When Simon, Adelia, and Mansur, Adelia’s attendant, reach Cambridge, they find that not just one boy but three more children have been horribly murdered. It is inconceivable that a woman might be a doctor, so the three have to pretend that it is Mansur who is actually the physician. Adelia ministers to patients under his orders, while spending the rest of her time investigating the deaths.

The author does a superb job of evoking Cambridge in the second half of the 12th century. All strata of society are encountered, from lowly peasants to royalty, and readers get a vivid sense of their roles and their prejudices, most notably those against Jews, women, and Saracens. Nearing Cambridge, the trio travel in the company of a group who are just returning from pilgrimage or crusade to the Holy Land, and conditions there are tellingly invoked by a returning crusader. The hunt for the killer is gripping, but the tension is leavened by a romance and by Adelia’s growing fondness for several local inhabitants.

The author’s note indicates where she took liberties with historical fact, and a set of questions for the author at the end of the volume provides the very welcome news that a sequel is planned. I have read many medieval mysteries over the years – this one falls in the very top tier.