Monday, November 12, 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death, question for the consideration of readers

How does an author of historical crime fiction avoid a jarring clash between the sensibilities of the time depicted and those of the time in which he or she writes? Ariana Franklin attacks the issue from the beginning of Mistress of the Art of Death, observing a group of pilgrims returning from Canterbury in 1171 wearing rich tokens of the martyred Thomas Becket and observing that "the Canterbury monks must be raking it in" – but leaving it for readers to reflect, as she clearly wishes them to, on the irony of the church scapegoating Jews for, among other things, alleged greed.

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

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Getting the blend of history and mystery/crime right is a difficult thing Peter. With some writers it feels like the history comes first, and with some the mystery. I find it interesting that so much successful British historical crime fiction is focused around a couple of particular periods: the late 12th century, and the time of Henry VIII. I wonder whether that is because they are well documented periods.
I enjoy seemingly disparate and very different writers in this genre such as Paul Doherty, Ellis Peters, and CJ Sansom.


November 13, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Achieving that blend must be one of the more difficult tasks for an author in a plot-driven genre such as crime fiction.

Like you, I've noticed that historical crime fiction tends to focus on certain periods. In the Roman eras, for instance, authors seem to write more about the 1st century A.D. than about earlier or later. That's probably no surprise, since that period marked a great change in Roman history and encompassed the lives of the three greatest Roman historians.

I've often thought that the 4th century would make a good setting for crime (Constantine was especially thorough at defeating rivals and slaughtering his own relatives), and then I discovered that your man Paul Doherty has written at least one book set in Constantine's time.

November 13, 2007  

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