Books about death and the study of bodies has never seemed so popular as it has been of late. These last few years have seen more shows, movies, and indeed books centering on those who specialize in speaking for the dead. Terms like ‘forensics’ and ‘pathology’ are bandied about with regularity. What we can be sure of though is those who make a profession in this field are to be admired for they have learned to speak for those who no longer have a voice.
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin takes us back to the early (very early) days of forensics and the medical examiner. We are taken back to 12th Century Cambridge in England where four children have been murdered. The Catholic townsfolk place blame on their Jewish neighbors. To save them from the mob, the Jewish townspeople are placed under the protection of the king and are sequestered in the castle there. King Henry does not particularly care for the Jews, or for anyone really, but he does care for the taxes received from the Jewish merchants.
In the hope that the science of the day will bring the killer to light, King Henry pens an entreaty to his cousin – the King of Sicily. Among the King’s subjects are the best medical experts Europe has to offer and Henry asks for the best ‘Master of the art of death’. The best the University of Salerno has to offer is chosen and sent to England. The only issue being that the best’s name is Adelia; a woman. It is not a ‘Master’ that has been sent but a ‘Mistress’.
Adelia is very good at what she does but England seems a different world than her native Sicily. In England, the Church and superstition reign supreme and a woman with her kind of knowledge was seen as dangerous. To keep from being accused of witchcraft she must tread carefully as she examines the victims and hunts for a killer.
Mistress of the Art of Death is a wonderfully researched book. The small details from the lay of the land to the way the characters speak definitely show. Adelia herself is a tough and smart woman but also has a softer side which we see as the book goes further along. The principles she holds so dear are tested as she struggles to find the heinous persons behind the crimes.
As much as I enjoyed this book, there was only one small problem I encountered. One tiny little detail that kept tickling at the back of my mind as I read. It was the main character herself: Adelia. It was how easily the townsfolk accepted her and her traveling companions. How she was able to go about alone and without chaperone. How she was able to sit alone with a man albeit in a garden and out in the open. To my understanding this kind of thing simply wasn’t done, especially if the woman was young and unmarried such as Adelia.
Putting that aside though, this was a good read. I liked the characters and the wondering of ‘who did it?’ kept me turning the page.