Mistress of the Art of Death

By Miriam R. Kramer

Mistress of the Art of Death

Writing under the pen name Ariana Franklin, former journalist Diana Norman penned a series of five absorbing, colorful medieval thrillers, starting with Mistress of the Art of Death, about a female doctor and forensic investigator named Adelia Aguilar. The subsequent novels The Serpent’s Tale, Grave Goods, A Murderous Procession, and Death and the Maiden trace her development as a tenacious woman working to fulfill her mission solving murder mysteries in patriarchal twelfth-century England. A related novel, The Siege Winter, is equally intriguing.

Children are going missing in Cambridge, England, and locals are blaming the Jews of the area, who have left their homes and hidden in a local castle to escape harassment. A boy named Peter has been found in the river Cam after having been crucified. King Henry II has started losing revenues from the Jewish community there, since his citizens want to expel Jews from the country. Pragmatic and cunning, he is intent on solving the problem before he loses more money from his treasury. Therefore he sends a request to Salerno, which is known for its doctors and medical investigators, to send him their best.

As a tenacious investigator, Adelia can trace criminals like few others. In England she plunges into a series of murders that bring her talents to the forefront. With her is Simon of Naples, a Jew who solves murders while using his unassuming personality behind the scenes.

As a doctor Adelia cannot resist treating someone in pain. To practice medicine on locals she gets her bodyguard, Mansur, who does not speak English, to pretend to administer medicines and perform procedures. She masks herself as his assistant and does what needs to be done, along with practicing forensics.

Ariana Franklin’s novels have a straightforward sense of humor, which alleviates the grimness of the murders she describes. When plain spoken, down-to-earth Adelia helps a prior with a medical problem involving his prostate, out of gratitude he brings her into the community and gets her, Simon of Naples, and Mansur the help they need from a plainspoken woman and her grandson in the flat, watery Fens of England. From there she can investigate a parade of pilgrims with whom she traveled to her destination, suspecting that one of them is the murderer she seeks.

Franklin’s subsequent novels continue Adelia’s journey as she finds romance while maintaining her status as an independent woman in a world that wants her married and subservient. The saga of King Henry II and his noted wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, intertwines with her story, as she hobnobs with both humble peasants and royals during her investigations. Those who like the book Outlander by Diana Gabaldon might enjoy this series as well as they time travel to Adelia’s world.

Franklin portrays her as a feminist ahead of her time, an obstinate and dogged investigator devoted to her work and makeshift family that she discovers in England. Coming from a background embracing different colors and creeds, she is free of prejudices towards Jews, Arabs, and anyone outside the norm.

This series succeeds because many of its characters are well-realized, three-dimensional, and earthy. If you enjoy novels or TV series involving forensics, you will find examinations taking place in a much earlier time period refreshing. Franklin also describes England’s beauties of nature, particularly in the area now known as East Anglia.

She died before finishing the series, so her daughter, Samantha Norman, co-wrote the final book in the series, Death and the Maiden. I was happily surprised to find that the tale took on a slightly more reflective and even lyrical tone with the addition of Norman’s viewpoint. Often books co-written by another writer are flat, manufactured, and disappointing. Samantha Norman penned a subsequent enjoyable novel on a character briefly seen in this series. Read The Siege Winter also if you relish these books.

TAGS: medieval, forensics, mystery, King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Outlander

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