There are definite rewards to rummaging around in charity shops and stumbling across books you have never heard of. I admit it- what attracted me to Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death was its cover, which recalls the vellum pages of a medieval manuscript and prominently displays a detail from MS 74 G38 fol. 115r (Koninklije Bibliotheek). Yes, you should never choose a book by its cover alone, so I read the blurb on the back and well, what was there not to like? Death in 12th century Cambridge and investigating this mess? A doctor from Salerno. A FEMALE doctor by the impressive name of Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, foundling daughter of a Jewish anatomist foster father and a Christian doctor foster mother, and graduated from Salerno’s School of Medicine. The book was duly purchased for the princely sum of 29 p, and well, what a good purchase this turned out to be! (actually, I loved the book so much, I then embarked on hunting down the remaining books of the series…)
Ariana Franklin wrote four books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series between 2007 and her untimely death in 2011; her daughter, Samantha Norman (Franklin was a nome de plume and she also wrote as Diana Norman) is said to be continuing the series which was left at the end of The Assassin’s Prayer with a mighty cliffhanger, which speaks clearly of Franklin’s intention to continue the story arc and to throw her heroine into the path of some more adventures, and in Aguilar’s case, the inevitable pile of corpses accompanying her movements. It’s certainly an engaging series of books, fabulously well written, imaginative, richly conceived, and all the more interesting for the rare female investigator at the centre of the stories. I should fess up straight away that I have not yet read any of Ariana Franklin’s alter ego, Dianan Norman’s books, but their titles suggest female protagonists too. Incidentally, many of Norman’s books seem quite hard to trace but certainly have an enthusiastic community of online reviewers, so I am definitely looking forward to getting hold of them. It would be nice to get hold of them in Kindle format, just in case any publishers are reading this….
We first meet Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Art of Death, on the way to Cambridge in 1171, travelling in the company of Mansur, a tall eunuch who served as her childhood companion, and Simon of Naples, an envoy from King William II of Sicily, sent to England on the request of Henry II Angevin/Plantagenet to investigate a series of child murders and disappearances in Cambridge. The Jews of Cambridge are suspected of the crimes, but something does not add up, so Adelia, Mansur and Simon are to delve a bit more deeply into the mystery surrounding the death and disappearance of the children. Franklin starts the story slowly, by establishing Adelia’s medical credentials (in a fabulous roadside encounter of science versus the efficacy of relics), but also by situating Adelia and her little household in Cambridge. The original household of three (Adelia, Simon and Mansur) is enlarged by the arrival of earthy, no-nonsese Gyltha as housekeeper and confidante, her grandson Ulf and a super-smelly hound by the name of Safeguard, and once set up, we see Adelia in action. What Franklin also gets us used to here is the role Adelia and her household will play in this and future investigations: we need an outsider-observer with no political, religious or national loyalties, so we have a class-less, displaced foreign woman who is invisible because of her sex, but sexually and morally impeachable as she has a male chaperone who is sexless, and a female housekeeper. Adelia might have a very conspicuous household, but she has neutral loyalties, and thus becomes the perfect investigator.
Now, what adds to her value as investigator is that Franklin’s protagonist is also a trained medical Doctor from Salerno, especially skilled at dissection, and endowed with some refreshingly anachronistic proto-feminist traits. Sure, a woman of the ilk of Adelia would have been quite inconceivable for twelfth-century Cambridge, but Franklin’s fictional heroine is masterfully drawn and plays her part supremely well. It’s a combination of Adelia’s medical skills, logical training, intuition and support from the male cast (Mansur, Simon, and Sir Roland (Rowley) Picot) that unravels the mystery behind the deaths of the children, but the gender balance of who has what skills is weighted towards the woman possessing the skills, so Franklin can tell her story differently. At one point Adelia, armed with a stick and a smelly hound goes in pursuit of a clue while tall, martial, skilled-with-sword Sir Rowley is bed-bound, immobilised and confined to being passive and indoors. Franklin continually challenges gender stereotypes not just in how her lovingly-drawn female protagonist handles her investigations ( accompanied by an emasculated Muslim, an illiterate Christian urchin, a bookish Jew and a super stinky and cowardly dog), but also in the brutality and graphic depiction of the fate of the missing children. Franklin ends her book by setting Adelia up at Cambridge, under the patronage of Henry II, placing her at hand for a sequel.
The sequel wasn’t long in coming: The Death Maze picks up 2 years after the events of The Mistress of the Art of Death and against the background of the Great Revolt of 1173/74. Adelia, nursing her little daughter Allie (Almeisan), still lives in the fens outside Cambridge, but can no longer practise within the town itself. Her unorthodox household (Mansur is still with her, so is her housekeeper Gyltha, and of course her illegitimate daughter) combined with her medical skills don’t fit the orthodoxy of twelfth-century Cambridge, so an outcast and outsider she is. Of course, this places her where Franklin needs her, at the fringes of events, as an astute but impartial observer, and as a protagonist who can be moved into the place where she is needed most. In this case, Adelia, and her unique skills as anatomist, are needed at the convent of Godstow, near Oxford, and her task is to establish how Rosamund Clifford, favourite mistress of Henry II Plantagenet has died. Solving this death is important as the prime suspect for Rosamund’s death is Henry’s troublesome wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, so Adelia is cast into the middle of an explosive and highly sensitive situation that requires utmost discretion to avert civil war. Who better to deal with this than the ostracised Sicilian single mum with the razor-sharp brain and the ability to remain unnoticed…. For The Death Maze, Franklin creates a setting that essentially acts like a stage set: she places the majority of the cast of characters for the book within the confines of Godstow convent, and in order to increase the clautrophobia of the setting further, she maroons her characters by having the convent snowed in. She also increases the body count beyond Rosamund Clifford, and one of the issues Adelia faces is to establish whether the various deaths that occur are connected, or are in fact separate murders unconnected to each other. The tension in the book mounts palpably as Adelia discounts more and more suspects until the inevitable confrontation and resolution at the end. As the frost that has engulfed Godstow and made it inaccessible breaks, so Adelia’s case dissolves.
Cue two years forward to 1176, and the convergence of a series of events: The abbey of Glastonbury burns down in a disastrous fire that also destroys the adjacent town; the discovery of two skeletons in Glastonbury’s court yard (those of Arthur and Guinevre?), and a series of rebellions against Henry II across Wales. In the Relics of the Dead, the third book in the ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ series, Henry II and Rowley, Bishop of St. Albans, again turn to Adelia to investigate events in Glastonbury. The call to Glastonbury is timely, because Adelia’s unorthodoxy (practising medicine and continuing to live as female head of a household comprised of Mansur the Eunuch, Gyltha the housekeeper and Allie, Adelia’s illegitimate child) has attracted the attention of the Church, and she is in danger of being arraigned for witchcraft.As before, Franklin uproots her protagonist, and in doing so, casts her in a different context that shows new depths of Adelia’s character. Whether chaperoned by an elderly housekeeper and a eunuch or not, Adelia can’t travel on her own, so Franklin makes her fall in with Lady Emma Wolvercote, whom we have already met in The Death Maze, who is also on the way to Somerset. On arrival at Glastonbury, Adelia, Mansur, Gyltha and Allie find themselves as the only guest in the increasingly sinister Pilgrims’ Inn (Franklin does sinsister, macabre and unsettling especially well), they find the vast abbey in ruins and occupied by just a handful of monks and their Abbot, and then there are the two skeletons, one large, one small and delicate- but even the skeletons show sustained signs of violence and the smaller one has been mutilated and is missing its pelvis. All of this is overlooked by the majestic landscape of Avalon, bounded by treacherous quicksand and dominated by an island that is home to a leper colony. In sharp contrast to The Death Maze, with the crowded, enclosed setting of the snowed-in convent, in The Relics of the Dead Adelia encounters few characters and seems free to roam across the magnificent landscape of Avalon. Or so it seems, because very quickly there is a palpable sense of threat that restricts Adelia’s movements. Lady Wolvercote has disappeared en route to Glastonbury, the inn is deserted, all enquiries run into dead ends and on top of it all, Adelia is experiencing nightmares. All is not well on the Isle of Avalon… As in the previous books, the cases resolve themselves in a magnificent tour de force of superb writing, this time leaving Adelia settled in Somerset, and of course, with a new setting, Franklin can spin her character again and into a new direction.
The Assassin’s Prayer departs from the previous three books in the series as here, for the first time, Franklin creates a story that is less autonomous than the earlier installments in the series and draws closely on the events of The Relics of the Dead. Adelia’s investigations at Glastonbury led to the death of an outlaw, and one of his associates is seeking revenge. This would-be assassin starts to dog Adelia’s steps and embarks on an epic, twisted, sustained campaign of revenge- an even more poisonous campaign in that Adelia for a very long time fails to realise that the thread which is connecting all the events hapening around her is she herself, and that a clever, malicious mind is manifesting itself set on destroying her.
Adelia and Mansur find themselves as part of the entourage of Princess Joanna Plantagenet, on the way to Palermo to marry King William II of Sicily, and once again they have been entrusted by King Henry II with a special, secret mission. Not only are Adelia and Mansur to safeguard the health of Princess Joanna (and a very good decision that was too as Adelia finds herself called on to perform an appendectomy), but there is also the issue of delivering Excalibur safely into the hands of William of Sicily. Excalibur must no less fall into the hands of Richard the Lionheart than into the hands of Young King Henry, with Henry still mistrusting his sons after the Great Revolt in 1173/74. Franklin, who has many strengths as a writer, but who excels at sketching the settngs for the story, again plays with the by now familiar elements of claustrophobia and openness; here, Adelia is hemmed in by the protocol, ceremony and pecking order of Joanna’s train, which soon splinters into numerous factions, but this is offset by the continual movement of this peripatetic procession. Nothing and nobody ever stays still, the train moves inexorably south, and where deaths occur en route (a poisoned horse, a laundress, a knight gored by a wild boar), these deaths have to remain unresolved, which of course means any links between them remain hidden. Franklin also allows the reader information Adelia is unaware of, because the author gives us access to the (troubled) mind of the would-be assassin so while we can anticipate danger for Adelia, she can’t, and of course, all of this adds to the psychological drama of The Assassin’s Prayer. The story’s climax plays out in Palermo, but ends with the events of the murderous procession of Joanna to Sicily resolved while setting up a return journey to England as a race against time. Franklin’s death has frozen the story at this point, unless her daughter does indeed revive the Mistress of the Art of Death series, but as far as I am concerned, the series could just end where it is, with four books of supremely high standard writing and plotting that stand out both on their own as individual installments but also as a series. It needs no sequel, but stands as a legacy to a supremely confident and competent writer whose skill at playing out an enthralling story against a beautifully conceived historical and historicising backdrop is second to none. Franklin made me pick up my old copies of John Julius Norwich’s books on Sicily, she made me go to the library and look at the medical school of Salerno, she made me pick up books on Henry II and Thomas Becket- you get the gist. Excellent books and hugely enjoyable. If you can find them, go read.