I am indebted to Norman (alias Uriah) (or is it t’other way ’round?) from Crime Scraps for introducing me to this book and the rather magnificent Adelia Aguilar. As is usually the way when I fall in love with a book I can’t quite explain why. Oh I can (and will) describe the things I liked about it but I can never seem to explain what sets the books I love apart from the books I like immensely. I find this annoying. Never-the-less, on with what will be a gushing review.
Mistress of the Art of Death drew me into its medieval English setting immediately with a present-tense opening description of a cavalcade of pilgrims, and three important foreigners, returning to Cambridgeshire after Easter in Canterbury. The foreigners are from Salerno in Italy and they are Simon of Naples (an investigator of renown), Adelia Aguilar (a qualified doctor who can ‘read’ corpses) and her manservant Mansur. They have been sent to Cambridgeshire because King Henry II asked the King of Sicily to send his best people to investigate a crime. One young boy has been horribly killed (crucified so they say) and several other children are missing. The town’s Jewish population, having been blamed for the atrocities, have been provided sanctuary in the King’s local castle but still they are hounded, afraid and, more importantly from King Henry’s point of view, unable to earn money from which they can pay him taxes.
Although it runs to 502 pages I gobbled up this book in a couple of settings, wishing I had the patience to take things more slowly because I didn’t want it to end but being unable to resist the pull of just a few more pages. The character of Adelia Aguilar would have been enough to capture my heart as she is a feisty, intelligent woman who is not afraid of telling things as they are as evidenced by this extract
It wasn’t that she had anything against the faith of the New Testament; left alone it would be a tender and compassionate religion…No, what Adelia objected to was the Church’s interpretation of God as a petty, stupid, money-grubbing, retrograde, antediluvian tyrant who, having created a stupendously varied world, had forbidden any enquiry into its complexity, leaving His people flailing in ignorance.
Eschewing romance (though not necessarily love) for science and the practice of medicine Adelia is unconventional in many ways but is very humane and thoughtful too. If she’s not enough for you there are a swag of other terrific characters here too. The housekeeper Gyltha and her grandson Ulf who both ‘test’ the foreigners in their way before giving them support and information in equal measure are treasures. As are Simon of Naples, a wise and moral investigator deeply in love with his wife; Prior Geoffrey, grateful for Adelia’s ministrations to his delicate prostate problems; and Sir Rowley Picot, initially a suspect in Adelia’s eyes but who goes on to become an object of her affection. Even the unsympathetic characters like Prioress Joan are well drawn.
I’m sure there are period scholars who could pull apart the book and find inaccuracies but I can’t and probably wouldn’t care if I could. From my limited knowledge there do not appear to be too many liberties taken with important factual elements incorporated into the story and the rich detail of daily life fascinated me. Medical practices, the grittiness of the Crusades, the treatment of women, the bigotry between religions, the interesting role played by Henry II in history (who always is upstaged in the history books by his later namesake and all his wives) are all depicted in a very engaging way. These details wrap themselves around a horrific crime, the essence of which at least was factual according to the author, which was recounted in such a compelling way that I was forced to stay up way past my bed time to finish.
Mistress of the Art of Death offered a delicious reading experience loaded with wit, terrific period imagery and details, an intriguing mystery and unpredictable, fascinating characters. I have already ordered the next adventure to feature Adelia and whoever else she takes with her on her next adventure.
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My rating 5/5
Publisher: Bantam Books ; ISBN: 978-0-553-81800-0 Length: 502 pages Setting England, year 1170-71
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Mistress of the Art of Death is reviewed at Crime Scraps (thanks again for the recommendation Norm), Dear Author, Euro Crime, again at Euro Crime and at My Fluttering Heart. It is also used as the basis of an interesting commentary on historical fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders.