Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

published 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death

[1171: Adelia is a doctor from Salerno, visiting England and investigating a series of crimes]

It was the custom in Cambridge for those who had been on pilgrimage to hold a feast after their return… it was the turn of the Prioress of St Radegund to host the feast… It was not until the morning of the day itself that a Grantchester servant arrived with an invitation for the three foreigners in Jesus Lane.

Left to herself, Adelia would have put on her grey overdress in order to tone down the brightness of her best saffron silk underdress, which would then only have shown at bosom and sleeves. ‘I don’t want to attract attention.’

The [maids] however, plumped for the only other item of note in her wardrobe, a brocade with the colours of an autumn tapestry, and Gyltha, after a short waver, agreed with them. It was slid carefully over Adelia’s coiffure. The pointed slippers Margaret had embroidered with silver thread went on with new white stockings.

The three arbiters stood back to consider the result.
observations: Historical fiction is a funny thing: I don’t like much of it, but the authors I do like, I really love. Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, and CJ Sansom are my favourites. I remember picking up the The Other Boleyn Girl, by Gregory, and being jolted by its unusual take on women, its frankness and straightforwardness, its wonderful female characters. For me, she changed the face of historical fiction.

I have tried many pre-20th -century historical crime series in my day, and only Sansom has really kept me reading with his Shardlake books. After finishing some of the try-out volumes, I thought ‘well that was OK, but I don’t need to read any more.’ Others of them I flung across the room. These days it takes quite a lot to make me try a new one, but a passing mention by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading (a reviewer I revere) made me think I should try this one. And although it contained many features that I would expect to dislike, I enjoyed the book hugely: full marks Bernadette.

Ariana Franklin (1st strike: I get confused between the author name and the heroine) says that Adelia Aguilar could have existed and been trained as an anatomist and medical doctor in Salerno in Italy in the 12th century. I bow to her knowledge, though it seems unlikely Adelia would have been quite as modern as she is portrayed. The two things I hate in low-grade historical fiction are 1) people with progressive, pleasantly right-on attitudes that they surely would not have had back then and 2) adoring, deeply loyal retainers with a twinkle in their eyes. Franklin is guilty of both these things, but somehow gets away with it: her heroine is funny, and would be totally believable as a 20th/21st century woman, and I decided just to enjoy it and go along for the ride.

She has been sent to Cambridge to try to look at the murder of some children (don’t even bother asking why – the author has to get her heroine a medical education AND into a local setting, so she was forced to make something up.) The local Jews have been blamed, and are suffering persecution as a result. Naturally Adelia isn’t bigoted at all, and has Jewish friends, so can start off with the assumption that they are not guilty. So – she solves the crime, and it is an exciting and tense investigation, with a lot of detail of 12th century life, and great characters. King Henry II makes a cameo appearance, and there is mention of the whole Thomas Becket affair – there were a couple of blog entries in 2013 on Becket and on TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

Ariana Franklin was the pen-name of Diana Norman, who was married to Barry Norman, probably the UK’s most famous film critic in his day. She died in 2011.

I didn’t read Bernadette’s actual review of the book till after I’d finished it: it is here.

Bernadette mentions that the author also wrote a non-fiction book called Terrible Beauty: Life of Constance Markievicz, 1868-1927. Happily I can inform her that Terrible Beauty is a quote from WB Yeats (on the aftermath of the Irish 1916 uprising, not on any woman) and that Con Markievicz was an extraordinary and fascinating woman: a revolutionary, and the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament (though she never took her seat). In fact I visited her childhood home while on holiday in Ireland a couple of weeks ago – blog post here, and more on Markievicz and her sister in this entry.

The picture is ‘12th century woman’, from a 1906 book of theatrical costumes.


  1. I like historical fiction better than you do, Moira, although I'll not deny there've been some I wanted to throw across the room. I think this series is a great one, though, and I've always thought Franklin/Norman did a very effective job with Adelia Aguilar. She managed to strike that difficult balance between keeping the story consistent with the era, but at the same time making Aguilar ahead of her time, if I can put it that way.

    1. ... and I would trust your judgement, Margot, along with Bernadette. Next time I need a historical fix I will browse through your blog for suggestions...

  2. Hmm, I think I'd rather go boil my head in a pot....

    1. That'll fit right in, that's exactly the kind of thing they do with the bodies.

  3. Thanks for the kind words Moira. And I'm glad you liked Adelia's adventure.

    Like you I have struggled with historical fiction in which people - especially women and others normally treated as second class citizens - behave in ways that are totally unrealistic for their time. But in the end I decided that if I was going to read the genre at all I would have to suspend my disbelief or be very, very angry (honestly when everyone is behaving as they really did the cavalcade of rich, white, anglo-saxon men bestriding the world is pretty off-putting). I've chosen to suspend my disbelief when the writing and character development manage to bewitch me as Franklin/Norman managed to do with Adelia and company. I'm going to have to try your recommendations now (though I will admit to having faltered with Mantel some years ago - but still yet to try Sansom or Gregory so will start there).

    1. Bernadette, you put it very well, I know exactly what you mean. As you say, sometimes you just have to grit your teeth. We can't have our characters using the language they would have used, because it would be incomprehensible, so I suppose we just have to give attitudes a pass too.
      But I did really enjoy this one - and have ordered the next one.

  4. Moira; I equally liked the book though I had a reservation about the bizarre start to the conclusion.

    With regard to Adelia, the modern woman, I thought you could reverse the numbers from 12th to 21st.

    1. Yes I know what you mean Bill. But there was such entertainment value that I'm willing to forgive both Ariana and Adelia...

  5. I loved this book and Adelia Aguilar, and I'm not normally a fan of historical fiction. She is very progressive and a feminist, way ahead of her time. But I loved her and so did many of my reader friends. I liked her thinking and opinions, and due to her character, I liked Ariana Franklin/Diana Norman.

    I think a woman could have gone to medical school in Salerno at that time.

    I was disappointed that book II was more ordinary, without much incisive thinking, more of a formulaic historical romance/adventure novel. So I haven't moved on to books III and IV.

    I am, however, fascinated with Norman's book on Constance Markievicz, an Irish nationalist hero -- and, she came from County Sligo, home of my paternal great-grandmother, Sabina Agnes Ryan. So, I've always been aware of her and wanted to get this book. The library doesn't have it, but this blog post reminds me to search for it.

    I hear Norman's earlier books about Ireland are good, too, but, alas, unavailable over here.

    1. I have ordered the second book, Kathy, but your warning is helpful so I'm not expecting as much.
      Now, did you see that I was in Ireland recently, and visited Sligo, Yeats's grave, and Conn Markievicz's childhood home? Be sure to visit these 2 blogposts:


  6. I generally like historical fiction, but set around the period between WWI and WWII and then the post war years. Which does make it easier to accept some more modern portrayals. Even though there are some that are set around WWI that I had a hard time accepting. But Bernadette's point is very good. As long as I am sufficiently entertained, I can forgive a lot.

    I did enjoy the first book in the Marcus Didius Falco series by Lindsey Davis, which seemed (to me) to have a good historical setting yet the characters seem relatively modern. But I don't usually look for more series that are set before the 20th century.

    And all of that to get to the fact that I did read this book and like it and have all the others in the series, although I have not read them yet. The book wasn't perfect and strained disbelief a lot, but it did entertain.

    1. Yes, I know exactly what you mean. I will certainly read at least one more of this series - I liked the idea of the mystery of Henry II's mistress - and see how I feel after that.

  7. I read and enjoyed your two blog posts on Ireland, which then sent me to reading me about Yeats and Constance Markievicz. I'd like to find a good book about her. I'd like to read Norman's but I've seen some criticism of it, that it played down Markievicz's intelligence and skills and talked about her nice personality. I don't know.

    1. Thanks Kathy. I haven't come across any other biography of Markievicz, which is quite surprising as she was a major figure in Irish politics and history. I too would like to know more about her.

  8. Sounds quite good.

    Thanks for sharing. Great post.

    topping by from Carole's Books You Loved August Edition. I am in the list as #30 through #33.
    Happy Reading!!

    Silver's Reviews

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  9. Thanks for dropping by, Elizabeth, nice to see you. I think you would enjoy this one based on your blog reading.


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