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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mistress of the Art of Death.Ariana Franklin. Berkley Books (2008)

A hugely enjoyable and engaging medieval murder mystery that juggles plot mechanics, cast and context with confident ease. 1171 in Cambridge and four children have been murdered and the local Jewish community have been identified as the killers. This is a significant problem for Henry II, the Jews are a crucial source of revenue and they cannot provide any trapped within Cambridge castle. To investigate the case The King of Sicily has sent the only female doctor trained at the famous medical school of Salerno, Adelia, a woman who can read a corpse to understand why the person died. Travelling with two others, one of whom is a castrated Moor, Adelia investigates the deaths as quietly as she can, while navigating the weather and customs of a foreign country. The reveals are cunningly staged, the plot mechanics are very well delivered and the grim justice of the conclusion is harrowing.
For any historical  story the context looms large, it has to be credible and understandable which is a very difficult balance to achieve. The cast must inhabit it naturally and be accessible to a reader, too little or too much information are equally bad. Ariana Franklin creates the context via the landscape and the cast and does so with utterly convincing confidence. Cambridge, set in the marshy fens and prosperous trading routes on the river Cam, the potent fears of outsiders as the source of trouble, the political tides of monarchy and church are all carefully woven into the story that is brought to life by the wonderful cast.
Adelia is an outsider from birth, rescued from exposure on the slopes of Vesuvius, a female doctor and now in England understanding disease much better than humans. Simon of Naples and Mansur her companions who see Adelia for who see is and create the space for her to live as she needs to. The rest of the cast are vividly loudly alive and  demanding attention from the reader, in particular the voracious predator who stalks in the shadows of the story slowly coming forward into the light. The suspects are plentiful and credible, with great skill one investigation crosses with another and the tension between the two becomes personal and professional.
Most impressively Ariana Franklin develops a credible romance between two adults that respects the context and the cast equally, it never robs the characters of their hearts or their brains. Their responses to the developing situation increases the depths and engagement of the characters and the way they manage is very satisfying.
This is first rate crime fiction set in a superbly imagined and credible context with a great cast that are all fighting all the time to be the leads in their own lives. Fantastic.

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