Sunday, September 19, 2010
A chilling, mesmerizing novel that combines the best of modern forensic thrillers with the detail and drama of historical fiction. In medieval Cambridge, England, four children have been murdered. The crimes are immediately blamed on the town's Jewish community, taken as evidence that Jews sacrifice Christian children in blasphemous ceremonies. To save them from the rioting mob, the king places the Cambridge Jews under his protection and hides them in a castle fortress. King Henry II is no friend of the Jews-or anyone, really-but he is invested in their fate. Without the taxes received from Jewish merchants, his treasuries would go bankrupt. Hoping scientific investigation will exonerate the Jews, Henry calls on his cousin the King of Sicily-whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe-and asks for his finest "master of the art of death," an early version of the medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno. But her name is Adelia-the king has been sent a mistress of the art of death. Adelia and her companions-Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor-travel to England to unravel the mystery of the Cambridge murders, which turn out to be the work of a serial killer, most likely one who has been on Crusade with the king. In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia must conceal her true identity as a doctor in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she is assisted by Sir Rowley Picot, one of the king's tax collectors, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. Rowley may be a needed friend, or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia's investigation takes her into Cambridge's shadowy river paths and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again . .
I really enjoyed this - what shall I call it - an historical thriller? The lengthy description above pretty much gives an accurate account of what the book is all about. Adelia is an intelligent woman, a spinster by choice, she has no interest in attracting a man, she's a doctor, one of the few educated and classically trained women doctors in the world. What's her specialty? Corpses - they "talk" to her. Salerno has the only university that admits women in the study of medicine. Pretty amazing what she can glean by examining the body of a corpse back in the middle ages during the reign of Henry II. With no modern day accoutrement's she figures out over the course of her investigations where the children were murdered, how and most likely what was the motivation and background of the killer.
Adelia is summoned to Cambridge, England at the behest of Henry II who has a few crucial and entertaining cameos in the story. One of the first people she meets is Sir Rowley. At first we're not enamored of Sir Rowley. He's a tax collector. Images of the evil tax collectors in the legends of Robin Hood come to mind, so I took an instant dislike to him. He unexpectedly assists Adelia while she conducts her autopsies on the bodies. Is he the killer? His reaction to the autopsies is one of genuine horror and over the course of time we learn that Sir Rowley is not a bad guy and he begins to grow on us - as well as Adelia.
There are many interesting and rich characters. I particularly liked Prior Geoffrey, who she helps by relieving him of a prostrate problem. I also liked the young boy, Ulf and his grandmother, Gyltha. Throughout the story there are several red herrings as to who is the killer and why he killed these poor innocent children in such horrible ways, it's obvious he must be mad. Yet, the most interesting part of this novel is how Adelia narrows down the list of suspects of who is the murderer. Is it a monk, the prioress, one of her nuns, one of the knights returned from the Crusades? There are many possibilities all under Adelia's acute observation. Unfortunately, whoever the killer is, he's onto her and is determined to scare her off the case, as well as her friends who have come with her from Salerno to investigate. What's another murder to add to his list? At this point, the story ramps up and became hard to put down.
The writing in this novel is first rate, the descriptions, although gruesome were realistic and the grime and filth and dirt of this period rang true. Although I cringed in parts due to the horrific nature of the crimes, especially with children involved, I was engrossed with the story, and surprised to find out who the culprit was by the end. I was sure I had it figured out, but then I realized I was wrong and had to keep listening to find out who the killer was and if he'd try to capture little Ulf or Adelia herself!
I also found it interesting why Henry II was so concerned with the safety of the Jews in England (money, of course.) It was vastly entertaining near the end how Henry saw right through the Prioress, revealing just how greedy she was! I felt like clapping, for she was the worst! He also had the opportunity to show up the Church in retort to the whole Becket debate, which led to Becket's assassination and canonization, probably the most famous thing Henry II was ever known for and never lived down. Becket's obstinacy in not giving in to Henry's desire to give secular courts jurisdiction over clerical trials and disputes was at the heart of the matter in the debate. Here, the author manages to give Henry his chance to rub it in the church's nose, making it crystal clear why he insisted on being able to try churchmen - and women - who are convicted of crimes, rather than letting the church try their own. I won't reveal what happens or how exactly, but you'll know what I mean when you read the book and get to the end. Frankly, I loved it!
In addition, I loved the side story of Adelia's romance - it gave the story a richer and broader appeal and made her more human in my opinion. I was happy the way it all ended up for her, I won't reveal who her love interest is, but you might be able to guess anyway *grin* I rejoiced to see how she makes up her mind and goes with her conscience, even if it doesn't exactly coincide with her common sense.
As an audiobook, Rosalyn Landor did an excellent job with the narration, she's one of my favorite narrators, giving it all just the right accent and flavor of the times.
If you are a fan of forensic themed stories or a CSI devotee, as well as lover of medieval fiction - this book is for you! I rarely watch TV (except for some Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond reruns) but from what I hear, forensic shows are really popular! I imagine this is sort of like a medieval version of them. I'm glad I read it, something different for me and I was pleasantly surprised! I highly recommend Mistress of the Art of Death and I'm eager to listen to the rest of the series now, the next one sounds even better than the first - featuring Eleanor of Aquitaine!