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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Stories on Saturdays: Mistress of the Art of Death

Title: Mistress of the Art of Death
Author: Ariana Franklin
Publisher: Transworld
Published: 2007
Genre: Historical Crime

Find it at Amazon UK

The Blurb says ...
Adelia Aguilar is a rare thing in medieval Europe - a woman who has trained as a doctor.  Her speciality is the study of corpses, a skill that must be concealed if she is to avoid accusations of witchcraft.

But in Cambridge a child has been murdered, others are disappearing, and King Henry has called upon a renowned Italian investigator to find the killer - fast.

What the king gets is Adelia, his very own Mistress of the Art of Death.

The investigation takes Adelia deep into Cambridge; its castle and covents, and streets teeming with life.  And it is here that she attracts the attention of a murderer who is prepared to kill again ...

My Verdict: engaging, gripping and well-written (strongly recommended for crime fans)
I've read a couple of negative reviews on this book, pointing out small details that are historically inaccurate.  I'm not a historian, nor do I know a lot about the 12th century, so there was nothing to pull me out of the novel's world.  I do know a little about the period, and I did greatly enjoy the characterisation of King Henry, and the English characters' general xenophobia felt accurate to me also.

The novel has a prologue and an epilogue and initially I found the voice of the prologue quite difficult, not just because of its omniscient narration but because it addresses the reader in a way I haven't seen in many recent novels.  It felt quite 19th Century to me, and that's not a good thing to my taste.  That said, the intrusive narrator soon disappears and the plot and characters gripped me rapidly - to the point where I had to leave the book at home one day to make sure I did my marking on the train and wasn't tempted...

The main character is fabulous.  Yes, her views are quite modern (which may have irritated some other reviewers), but to me that's entirely consistent with a woman doing an uncharacteristic job and encountering prejudice on a regular basis.  Or, more accurately, having to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid the prejudice that could see her put to death as a witch!

As a crime novel, there is some unpleasant detail - this is a book about a child murderer, after all - but  considerably less than many others I've read.  The text also doesn't delve into the psychology of the murderer, which seems historically consistent to me.  Psychoanalysis as an explanation for criminology is a pretty recent concept, after all.

On a personal level, having grown up in East Anglia, I really enjoyed the depiction of Cambridge: its atmospheric fenland and especially the local dialect, which was very effectively drawn and frequently made me smile in recognition.

Overall, this is a well-paced crime novel with a strong cast of characters and a beautifully-evoked setting, in terms of geography and history.  I have today purchased the second in the series (there are four) and am forcing myself to not read it immediately (there are Christmas present books I haven't got to yet!).

I received this book via Transworld's Great Crime Caper, but this did not influence my judgement.
This review is my fourth for the British Books Challenge, since Ariana Franklin is a British novelist.


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death. I picked it up in Waterstones yesterday having being attracted by the cover and the blurb.

  2. I'm going to get this for Jo. Sounds like her sort of thing. I've spent 3 the last weeks trying to read the last Dragon Tattoo book, so I'm no use...

  3. Jo liked this a lot and agreed with your review about the main character. I'm going to start it tomorrow.


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