Mistress of the Art of Death, question for the consideration of readers
The title character, Adelia Aguilar, is a doctor from Salerno summoned to Cambridge by King Henry II to investigate the mutilation murders of a series of children. As was often the case in England in that period, the local Jews are accused of the crimes.
This displeases Henry, for whom England's Jews are a considerable source of tax revenue. With forensic pathologists in short supply, he sends to a more enlightened realm for a master of the art of death, a physician to whom the bodies of the young victims will yield up their secrets and reveal the truth about who killed them. But instead of a master, the King of Sicily sends a mistress. Adelia's difficulties practicing her art in a country where female physicians are unheard of are a recurring motif, and not just at the hand of the novel's benighted Christians. The chief of Cambridge's Jewish community refuses to allow her into the room where a dead man lies, forcing her to send male helpers into the room to report on the body's condition and carry out an examination at second hand, according to her instructions.
Adelia, an outsider in several ways, is Franklin's mouthpiece for commenting on unfortunate (and fortunate) aspects of twelfth-century English society, and it is a mark of Franklin's ability to spin an entertaining story that she does not hit readers over the head with her modern attitudes too often. She manages this, in part, by rendering a convincing picture of twelfth-cenury Cambridge, sights, sounds, smells included. And, when she uncovers the truth about the murders, the killers' motives seem thoroughly contemporary. But why not? Just because certain depravities were beyond the power of those not involved in them to imagine does not mean they didn't happen, or that "good" people did not perpetrate them.
And now, readers, think of historical crime fiction you've read. How does the author manage the difficult feat of combining contemporary perspective and historical setting into a story that works? Is he or she able to make the setting both convincing and accessible?
© Peter Rozovsky 2007