Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: Mistress of the Art of Death

(Originally posted Tue., Feb 2, 2010, on Facebook.)

Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death is a historical thriller set in twelfth-century England. Cambridge is the scene of four gruesome child murders. The Jewish community has been accused of the crimes and has been forced into hiding, which displeases King Henry II not because of any religious tolerance, but because he stands to lose substantial income if the Jews are banished from Cambridge. Adelia, an Italian-trained forensic examiner, is sent to Cambridge to discover the real killer and in the process almost becomes the next victim.

The controversy about Mistress seems to center around whether there could really have been a female doctor at that time. Why not? Most of us are comfortable with the idea that women and minorities in the Western world played a much larger part in history than they are given credit for. I'm willing to bet that there were at least a few women trained as medical doctors. So it doesn’t bother me that, among a band of Crusaders returning to England, it is a woman who knows how to relieve the Prior's distress by inserting a reed into his, ahem, "pizzle" to allow him to urinate despite an enlarged prostate.

I do wonder whether forensic science had advanced so far. Franklin provides a convincing description of Adelia’s training studying pig carcasses and eventually human cadavers, but the scene in which she examines the murder victims reads as if it had been picked up from a CSI script and rewritten for the twelfth century. Another point that makes me uncomfortable is Adelia’s apparent understanding of germs, which, of course, she could not have had. Often, authors of historical novels have such great respect and love for their characters that they attribute them with knowledge far beyond the learning of the appropriate period. Adelia’s insistence on washing her hands in expensive brandy while she cares for patients with cholera borders on ridiculous.

But in the grand scheme of the novel, these are minor points. The book is engaging and well-written, with only a few stumbles in rendering contemporary English into a twelfth-century idiom, usually when Franklin employs a clichĂ© or overuses the word "indeed." Indeed, read enough historical fiction and you’ll end up thinking people before the twentieth century ran around “indeeding” each other to the point of indecency. But at other times Franklin’s writing is downright lyrical:

Her attention was on the countryside. Having lived among hills, she had expected to be repelled by flat land; she had not reckoned on such enormous skies, nor the significance they gave to a lonely tree, the crook of a rare chimney, a single church tower, outlined against them.

Of course, I’m particularly attracted to a description that could as easily be applied to my own beautiful Kansas, but there are other moments of equal beauty and unexpected humor, as when young Ulf, pressed by his grandmother into service as Adelia’s page for a fancy dinner, finds himself scrubbed clean “with his flaxen hair bobbed around a face like a gleaming, discontented pickled onion.”

The character of Adelia is itself an ingenious device to introduce twenty-first–century readers to the twelfth century. Adelia has been raised in Salerno, Italy, by a humanist, nonobservant Jewish father and a Christian mother, both of whom are practicing doctors. She has participated in the intellectual life of her cosmopolitan community and trained as a doctor. The only important aspect of Adelia’s life that differs from any twenty-first–century woman’s is that, to participate in the intellectual life, she has had to choose celibacy and remain unmarried (a problem that is, predictably, rectified by the end of the novel). If Adelia were plucked from the pages of the novel and dropped into any twenty-first century environment in the Western world, the only thing that would confuse her is the iPhone. (But then, when I borrowed my sister’s, it confused me, too.) Thus when Adelia travels to England, we are introduced to the repressive, traditionalist, superstitious country through eyes as unaccustomed as our own. Using Adelia, Franklin does not have to try to write as if it were normal to try to use a saint’s knuckle bone to cure disease; as Adelia is appalled, so are we.

As a mystery thriller, Mistress succeeds easily. The murders are particularly horrible, and the suspects are everywhere. Franklin adheres to the age-old device of making the killer the character you least suspect. (No, it’s not Adelia.) And even when the mystery has been solved, the suspense continues for at least another fifty pages.

My only caveat against this novel is for parents of young children. The murders are gruesome and no fun to read about. Reality is bad enough without contemplating fictional horrors as well, and if I had kids, these are not images I would particularly want rattling around in my head. Otherwise, pick up the book, skim the descriptions of the murders, and wallow in the mystery.

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