Normally I’d wait until finishing a book before commenting on it, but since I’ll be reveling in France for the next few days, I’ll mention Mistress in the Art of Death, one of those books that looked intriguing at the bookstore, but not quite intriguing enough for me to lay out the price of a hardcover. Once again, my local library branch comes through. I’m about halfway through it now.
Briefly, the book is about a female forensics expert investigating a series of gruesome child murders in 12th century England. Yes, that sounds anachronistic — my limited study of Medieval history somehow omitted all the women doctors of that time who tracked down serial killers with suspiciously up-to-date forensics techniques.
At least the protagonist is not beautiful; she’s short, plain-looking and rather abrupt. And author Ariana Franklin has given her a plausible, if not entirely believable, back story: the doctor majored in “the art of death” at a medical school in Salerno, Italy, which evidently did exist and took a more liberal view of what women could do in those days. She’s in England trying to prove that the child murders are not the work of the local Jewish population, and thus stave off a bloody insurrection.
It’s audacious plotting, and mostly it works. There’s a wealth of historical detail, and Franklin has taken care to weave real people, locations and events into her yarn. What bothers me most so far are little anachronistic slips in the writing. At one point, the protagonist Adelia reflects on how the Catholic Church is “raking it in” by exploiting the ignorant populace. At another, she recalls her days studying the decay of corpses at a body farm in Salerno. Was there such a thing in 1170? Somehow, I doubt it.
The book is interesting enough to finish, but it does remind me why I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell and watching all those CSI shows — finally, serial killers and forensic probes are no longer all that interesting. It also reminds me of books that did this kind of thing better: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose comes to mind, or Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost.