Time now for my third and final book in the Great Transworld Crime Caper. I arranged my choices in reverse chronological order of setting, so we’ve gone from the present day to the Second World War, and now we head back to the twelfth century. Mistress of the Art of Death is the first of Ariana Franklin’s (a pseudonym of Diana Norman, who sadly died in January) mysteries featuring Adelia Aguilar, an anatomist from the medical school at Salerno. In 1171, the King of Sicily sends her, along with Simon Menahem of Naples, to investigate the brutal murder of a child in Cambridge. Blame for the killing is being placed on the city’s Jewish population – erroneously, believes Henry II, who has no wish to the revenue they provide placed in jeopardy, and so asked Sicily to send help. As the investigation progresses, the stakes only grow higher, as more bodies are found, and the danger grows closer to Adelia.
Franklin suggests in her afterword that ‘It is almost impossible to write a comprehensible story set in the twelfth century without being anachronistic, at least in part’. I suspect that is probably true, and almost certainly so with a detective story, which relies on the reader’s being able to follow the protagonist’s processes of thought and deduction. It’s telling that Franklin has made Adelia so clearly exceptional within the wider world of the book, both by profession (she risks being accused of witchcraft If her medical knowledge is discovered, so must pretend that her Saracen manservant Mansur is the doctor, and she his assistant) and by her outlook and attitudes. Adelia is a very engaging character, in part because she is such an outsider, and therefore placed in a similar position to the reader with regard to the setting – even more so than usual for a novel’s protagonist, she becomes our eyes (this also allows Franklin relatively unobtrusively to slip in ancillary historical detail). However, Adelia’s distance from her surroundings also means that she lacks empathy at times: when she learns that the parents of the murdered boy (who is now being venerated as a saint) are charging people to visit their cottage, her response is, ‘How shameful’ – but she’s soon made to realise that the family are acting out of desperation, not greed. Adelia Aguilar leaps off the page as a fully-rounded individual.
Indeed, it’s the protagonist who really carries the book for me; the mystery, I think, is less satisfying. The plot advances with a goodly number of twists and turns, but the way the murderer is revealed strikes me as short on impact, as I didn’t gain a sense of it being worked out on the page, as it were. The ending of the novel is interesting at first in the way it uses the conventions of twelfth-century society to create a problem – but the solution to that problem is pretty much a deus ex machina.
Though its plot didn’t quite work for me, Mistress of the Art of Death is still worth reading for the character of Adelia. There are three other books, and I’m interested to see if any have a mystery that’s as well realised as the protagonist.