MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH by Ariana Franklin

Cambridge, 1170

God hates you Jews, Aaron,’ Henry said. ‘You killed His son.’
Aaron closed his eyes, waiting.
‘And God hates me.’
Aaron opened his eyes.
The king’s voice rose in a wail that filled the gallery like a despairing trumpet. ‘Swet God, forgive this remorseful and unhappy king. Thou knowest how Thomas Becket did ippose me in all things so that in my rage I called for his death. Peccavi, peccavi, for certain knights did mistake my anger and ride to kill him, thinking to please me, for which abomination You in Your righteousness have turned your face from me. I am a worm, me culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. I crawl beneath Your anger while Archbishop Thomas is received into Your glory and sitteth on the right hand of Your gracious son, Jesus Christ.’
Faces turned. Quills were poised in mid-account, abacuses stilled.
Henry stopped beating his breast. He said conversationally: ‘And if I am not mistaken, the Lord will find him as big a pain in the arse as I did.’ He leaned over, put a finger gently beneath Aaron of Lincoln’s lower jaw and raised it. ‘The moment that those bastards chopped Becket down, I became vulnerable. The Church seeks revenge: it wants my liver, hot and smoking, it wants recompense and must have it; and one of the things it wants, has always wanted, is the expulsion of you Jews from Christendom.’

Ariana Franklin was the pen-name of Diana Norman who, sadly for us readers, died in 2011 at the age of 77,  but left us this wonderful series of novels set in the time of Henry II and one stunning book (City of Shadows) set in 1920s Berlin. I’ll come to that one later. Today, let’s start with the Adelia Aguilar books, of which Mistress of the Art of Death is the first.

From the first page of this marvellous story, I knew I was in the hands of a mistress of the art of the medieval mystery when I found myself in the company of a group of pilgrims returning from the brand new shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. “But,” we are told, “one of them, as exuberant as all the rest, is a murderer of children. God’s grace will not extend to a child-killer,” which brings us directly to the first death, the murder of a little boy called Peter in Cambridge, with rumours flying about that the boy was crucified by the Jews and the Church trying to make a saint out of him and a local prioress already turning his bones into precious relics.

Meanwhile, Adelia Aguilar, a woman physican and pathologist from the great medical school at Salerno, arrives at Dover en route for Cambridge along with her two companions, Simon of Naples, a Jewish investigator and diplomatic fixer working for the King of Sicily, and a muscular “minder” who happens to be both a Saracen and a eunuch . They fall in with that party of pilgrims now returning to Cambridge from  Canterbury, a motley and Chaucerian bunch including an unpleasant and worldly prioress, a couple of knights (ex-Crusaders), and an Augustinian Canon.

Now the Canon cannot, as he puts it, piss. Crisis. He is literally at death’s door. The Prioress urges him to apply the knuckle-bone of “little St Peter” (the murdered child) to the offending organ. Predictably, it does not work. Adelia, the woman from Salerno, takes over – to the consternation of the canon himself and the horror of most of his companions. However, her system does work, and she wins herself an important and influential ally in Cambridge; one she is going to need, for the real reason she and her companions are in England is to discover the murderer of Little Peter of Trumpington and the other two children and prevent a pogrom against the Jews.

A great story, obviously meticulously researched yet narrated with lightness and humour. I particularly liked her Henry II, while the heroine, Adelia, manages to be utterly adorable as well as by far the most intelligent and practical person around. Yet she has no idea who the murderer is, and nor will you, there is no way to guess – unless you cheat. I didn’t. You mustn’t. But if you like medieval mysteries you must read it.

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