Ariana Franklin

Mistress of the Art of Death

"There are definite echoes of Cadfael here…"


Dr Vesuvia Adelia, a medical coroner in Salerno, accompanies Simon of Naples to England to help his investigations into a recent spate of child killings. They come at the request of the English king Henry II who is concerned that the Jews of Cambridge have been unfairly blamed for the child murders. The subsequent imprisonment of the Jews is now having an adverse impact on state finances. The party from Salerno is accompanied by the eunuch Moor, Mansur, and as they enter Cambridge they find England, still reeling from the death of Thomas of Canterbury, a hotbed of intrigue and mutual suspicion.

One of Adelia’s first acts is to cure a prior of a prostate problem,which draws unwelcome attention to her skills as a doctor, which are likely to brand her as a witch in mediaeval England. However, she soon become immersed in the case of the dead children and uses her pathology skills to try and find the cause of their deaths. Prickly, and depressed at being forced to stay in this backward country, she finds the attention of the local tax collector, Sir Rowley Picot at first unwelcome then disturbingly enjoyable.

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This is an excellent novel from a witty and innovative writer. The book’s principal strength is the characterisation of Adelia, an independent and educated female doctor who is forced to disguise her talents to fit in with the English notion of womanhood. There are echoes of Cadfael here in her characterisation, particularly in the way she uses her medical skills to find out the causes of death in a manner far advanced of medical orthodoxy of the time. However, the story could also be equally translated to a modern mystery featuring one of the many twentieth century female detectives, such is the strength of her characterisation. The plotting is excellent, and both strands of the novel, the hunt for the brutal murderer of the children and Adelia’s emerging romance with Sir Rowley, are merged together very well. There are a number of twists and turns before the finale is reached and the reader is left guessing, as to the identity of the murderer and the outcome of the romance until the very end. An excellent read.

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