Friday, May 22, 2009

Mistress of the Art of Death and The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

Now as to my latest fascination with a book series, I have to repeat that I am not normally a fan of the mystery genre, though I adore Sherlock Holmes and am a fan of Jacqueline Winspear's lovely Maisie Dobbs mysteries (set after the first world war), and of Brother Cadfael, Ellis Peter's fabulous Medieval sleuth, still I don't enjoy the Sister Fidelma mysteries, for example, or Agatha Christie, or PD James or even Dashiel Hammet. I have to have some Science Fiction/Fantasy or some paranormal abilities thrown in to keep me from yawning my way through any given whodunit, usually.

That said, I happened to see Mistress of the Art of Death at my local grocery store in a kiosk that was emblazoned with a 75 percent off logo, on already clearance priced books. So I grabbed what was the last hardbound copy of this novel and bought it for a song at $1.50.
I wasn't expecting to enjoy more than the beautifully-wrought cover, when I was surprised by the lush prose, the amazing protagonist and the gripping plot.
This mystery's sleuth, Adelia Aguliar, is a rare woman. She was orphaned at birth and raised by two doctors in Salerno, Italy, where she was given a thorough education in medicine and forensics, and trained to be a "reader of the dead" or what we would today call a medical examiner. Adelia is also possessed of a mind like Sherlock Holmes, an independent spirit, and a compassionate heart, in addition to tolerance for all races and religions, something that was not a given in the medieval era. Her second in command is a castrato (eunnich) Arabic black man named Mansur whom she uses as a 'beard' when she needs to tend to someone as a doctor, knowing that helping the sick isn't allowed of females, particularly unmarried females who aren't nuns.
In her first case, Adelia is called to England to find out who is killing/torturing children and crucifying their bodies before the town rises up and kills all the Jewish people who live there, as every time there is trouble, pogroms errupt and Jews are rounded up and murdered because people don't understand their religion and consider them "Christ killers." (never mind the fact that Jesus was Jewish, heaven forbid facts get in the way of ridiculous prejudice and ignorance)
Adelia examines the children and uncovers clues methodically until she finds, in a terrifying ending, who the murderers are, and saves the town's remaining Jewish population from death. Adelia is accused of witchcraft by an inquisition of the town church leaders and is saved by none other than the king of England, the brilliant Henry II, who is fleshed out here as more than the murderer of Thomas Beckett. Adelia meets Rowley Picot while ferretting out clues for the king, and falls in love with him as a kindred spirit.
The second book, The Serpents Tale, takes up a year after the mystery was solved, and finds Adelia dealing with a baby fathered by Rowley, who is now an archbishop and unable to marry Adelia, though she prefers not to wed and have to hide her brilliant mind and cease using her skills as a doctor to the dead. This time, King Henry's mistress Rosamund is murdered, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine is suspected of poisoning her. It's up to Adelia, Mansur and Glythia, a fenswoman of a small English village (who basically stands in for Dr Watson with her common sense and straightforward personality)to find out who really killed Rosamund and why.
Though it wasn't quite as gory and romantic as the first novel, the Serpents Tale was just as well written and briskly plotted as its predecessor. I honestly couldn't put either book down once I'd started reading it, and was surprised by how rapidly I went through them.
Franklin is a crack storyteller, very adept at characterization and has plots that are swift and sure. I find myself being addicted to yet another fictional character, and I'm now jonesing for the next installment of the series, Grave Goods, which just came out in March of this year.
I highly recommend these engrossing reads for all those who love unusual, brilliant sleuths and well-written historical mysteries with a medical twist.

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