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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Mistress of the Art of Death

I just finished reading a great book, the first in a series called "Mistress of the Art of Death" by Ariana Franklin.  The book centers around Adelia Aguilar, a female doctor from Salerno (the medical hub of the world at the time) who is called to England by Henry II to investigate a series of child murders.  As female doctors were unusual during this time and risked being labeled as witches Adelia must pretend to be an assistant to Mansur, an Arab who is really her servant and bodyguard.  As Arabs are also unusual in medieval England attention is invariably drawn to the two of them, so their "secret" mission soon becomes a very public one.

The murders have taken place in Cambridge and are horribly sadistic and frightening.  The first child to disappear was named Peter and when his body was found it was immediately claimed by the local convent of St. Radegund's.  The Prioress declared the child a saint and claimed that touching his bones could bring about healing and miracles.  The convent soon becomes a pilgrimage site and begins to grow wealthy from the pennies paid by those seeking to be healed. 

Meanwhile the town's Jews have been blamed for the murder as the first child's body was thrown onto the lawn of a rich moneylender after it was dead and was seen being secreted into the cellar by the family so that it could be gotten rid of under the cover of darkness.  It was common for Jews to be blamed for almost anything at the time, plague, bad harvest, why not child murder?  They were the eternal scapegoats of Christendom.  After it became known that the body of "Little Saint Peter" was in the house of a prominent Jew riots begin and the family is killed.  The rest of the Jewish population of the city is locked up in the town Castle for protection.  By the time Adelia and Mansur arrive they have been locked in for over a year.  The bodies of the other three children show up the morning after Adelia and company arrive in Cambridge.

Also traveling with the female doctor and Mansur is a man called Simon of Naples, he too is a Jew and a brilliant doctor.  The three set up house in the abandoned home of a Jewish pawn broker and are immediately swamped with patients.  They go about their investigation quietly, Simon talking with the Jews in the castle about who may have owed money to the dead money lender and would therefore have benefited from his death.  (The written tallies conveniently burned up in a fire on the night of the first murder.)  Adelia, who is a medieval medical examiner, examines the bones of all four dead children and determines that they died savagely, the marks of a sharp instrument having left deep grooves on their pelvic bones.  She also discovers that all four children were buried or kept in chalk, which is common throughout the region. 

After much investigation with the help of Ulf, the grandson of the housekeeper assigned to Adelia by the local Prior, Simon and Adelia determine that the monster's lair is somewhere in the region of Wandlebury Ring, a local chalk hill where sheep graze but people avoid.  Superstition surrounds the place and it is believed that old, evil spirits inhabit it.  Wandlebury is close to the town, but far enough away that screams would not be heard.  It is isolated, made of chalk, rife with tall grass and deep pits.  A perfect killing ground.

One of Adelia's suspects is Sir Rowley Picot, a crusader and tax collector for the king.  After several coincidental encounters Rowley tells Adelia that he has been following the killer all the way from the Holy Land, and that a trail of dead children has been left in his wake.  The killer was a crusader, a warrior for God who really worked for the devil.  Rowley and Adelia join forces, but they are both shaken by the murder of Simon of Naples and realize that the killer is now after them as well.

But who is the killer?  Who is luring the children to their deaths?  An Arab candy called a jujube is found tangled in the hair of one of the dead children.  The children are being led away by the promise of sweets, and by someone they trust.  Cambridge is not a large city at this time so most people know each other and they find it hard to believe such a person as a child killer could live in their midst.  The last three killings also took place almost a year after the first.  Seven years before that a herd of sheep was slaughtered in the same manner as the children, increasing the town's fear of Wandlebury ring.  The clues begin to add up and Adelia, Simon, and Mansur begin to construct the profile of a killer.

He is male
He is full of rage
He went on crusade
He is seemingly harmless and charming to children

I won't spoil the end of the book, but I will say that the killer was not working alone and that he  meets a fitting end.  His accomplice is walled up in a room, a fate that is at once horrifying and satisfying after what was done to the children of Cambridge.  I could hardly put the book down, it was a wonderful read.  I highly recommend it and the other four books in the series.  Sadly, the writer has passed away so there will be no more books forthcoming which is truly a shame.

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