Fearful Symmetries

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14 April, 2010

Mistress of the Art of Death



When I think of medieval mystery stories, my mind immediately jumps to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I heard about Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death when it was published in 2007 and resolved to check it out. I finally got around to doing and found that, while it is a very different book in contrast to The Name of the Rose but was nonetheless an extremely fun read.

It is 1171 and a group of pilgrims who had celebrated Easter at Canterbury are returning to Cambridge. Among them are the prioress and prior of the local nunnery and monastery, respectively, three knights who are former crusaders, a tax collector, and a trio of foreigners. This latter group has been sent to Cambridge by the King of Sicily at the behest of Henry II to investigate the murder of a young boy in the town. In addition, other children have gone missing. The townspeople have leveled accusations of blood libel against Cambridge's Jews who have been given refuge in the castle. For his part, Henry is perturbed at the loss of income as his Jewish servants who engage in usury are no longer paying taxes.

Simon of Naples, a Jew who is renowned in his homeland for his sleuthing skills, leads the investigation. With him is Adelia Aguilar, a doctor who is able to examine corpses to determine cause of death, and her manservant Mansur, a Saracen. While Franklin's story isn't concerned with metaphysics, extended metaphors, and philosophical conflicts as was Eco's, she does weave a great tale which touches on a variety of issues by using Adelia as a focal point.

The book's opening introduces us to the main figures in the town but also showcases Adelia's unique talents and her temperament. Prior Geoffrey has a prostate problem and cannot urinate. In a land where practicing medicine generally means preparing herbal remedies, Adelia is able to draw upon texts she's read and jury-rig a catheter to relieve the prior of his fullness. We learn that in her native Salerno, women are allowed to be doctors, unlike in England, and that a rational, scientific approach to medicine holds sway. Adelia is an intelligent, dedicated doctor who does not suffer fools easily.

At the heart of the story is a murder mystery and our investigators suspect everyone at first. The plot meanders as more information is gathered and the list of suspects narrows. But aside from simply being an engaging story, Mistress of the Art of Death touches on many issues, though it shies away from the metaphysical. Being a stranger in a strange land, Adelia's observations of 12th century life in Cambridge are in direct opposition to life in Salerno. The meals are heavy on the animal flesh and light on salad and people don't bathe much. But the book also gives anti-Semitism a prominent role as well as the subordinate role of women in England. These themes are not delved into deeply but rather are present throughout where they sit next to many others issues such as that of class and the dichotomies of superstition vs. reason and the individual vs. society.

With so many themes and issues abutting the basic detective story, Franklin creates a very vivid portrait of Cambridge in 1171. Sure, there are anachronisms but, overall, the world of the story is absorbing. And while there is a whole host of characters, she manages to flesh out a fair number of them. Simon is a Jew in a town seething with hatred of Jews, Adelia is a beacon of gender equality and rationalism in a town of misogyny and superstition, and Mansur is a Saracen. Franklin deftly tells us about the townspeople by how they react to the foreigners.

I don't mean to imply here that Mistress of the Art of Death is The Name of the Rose-lite because Franklin and Eco had very different motivations for their stories. Franklin has managed to create an intriguing protagonist in Adelia and placed her in a lovingly detailed world. Her mystery draws the reader in and is richly adorned with thematic elements that will resonate with contemporary readers.

I am looking forward to reading the three sequels.
|| Palmer, 10:37 AM

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