four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
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A-Mistress of the Art of DeathIn 12th-century Cambridge, England, four Christian children are found mutilated and murdered. The town’s Christian denizens point fingers at the Jews, and after a bloody riot, the Jewish community goes under the protection of the sheriff. King Henry II—unwilling to lose the tax revenues from the Jews, yet wanting justice—seeks help from his cousin, the King of Sicily, to conduct a forensic investigation into the murders. From Sicily’s Salerno School of Medicine arrive coroner Adelia, the school’s "best mistress of death"; her Muslim bodyguard; and a Jewish investigator. As Adelia searches for the culprits—perhaps a serial killer or a group of pilgrims returned from Canterbury—she realizes just how high the stakes really are.
Penguin. 384 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0399154140

New York Daily News 4 of 5 Stars
"There is a romantic aspect to Franklin’s novel, but it’s welcome since it doesn’t derail her intriguing historical fiction. … Mistress of the Art of Death [is] a fabulous read." Sherryl Connelly

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] morbidly entertaining novel that outdoes the competition in depicting the perversities of human cruelty. … [The] lonely figure who truly stands out in Franklin’s vibrant tapestry of medieval life is King Henry—an enlightened monarch condemned to live in dark times." Marilyn Stasio

Richmond Times-Dispatch 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]hanks to Franklin’s research and evocative prose, the reader not only enjoys a good whodunit with exceptionally well-formed characters but also learns much about medieval England. Although set in the distant past, Mistress of the Art of Death combines our worst contemporary nightmares, as Franklin weaves a frightening story of serial killings with a cautionary tale of ethnic and religious hatred." Jay Strafford

Tampa Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[Franklin] delves deep into the realities of the historical era, citing contemporary medical procedures and basing the case as a real-life mystery of 1144. This grasp of historical minutiae allows Franklin to present characters who seem fully the product of their time: extraordinary, flawed and memorable." Amy Smith Linton

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Ariana Franklin’s intelligent Mistress could have been called CSI: Canterbury. … Mistress is a rollicking microcosm of budding science, medieval culture and edge-of-your-seat suspense." Carol Memmott

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The story’s background is a wonderful tapestry of the paradoxes and struggles of the times: Christianity and Islam, Christians and Jews, science and superstition, and the new power of Henry II’s rule of law versus the stranglehold of the Church. … Franklin has written a terrific story, whose appeal rests on the personalities of the all-too-human beings who inhabit it." Diana Gabaldon

Critical Summary

In this historical crime thriller, Ariana Franklin (the nom de plume for British writer Diana Norman) introduces the compelling Adelia—abandoned as a child, adopted by doctors, trained in Salerno (a center of learning), and now a woman of modern sensibilities. Critics agree that Mistress is an unusually smart and intriguing story. Franklin perfectly recreates the barbarous culture of the Middle Ages and the Crusades—an era of religious persecution and idealism that clashed with the burgeoning importance of science and the rule of law. Grisly forensic details, combined with whodunit suspense, fascinating characters, timely themes, and even a little romance make for an excellent read. Watch out for Adelia’s return in next year’s The Serpent’s Tale.