Ariana Franklin, “Mistress of the Art of Death”

Here they come. From down the road we can hear harnesses jingling and see dust rising into the warm spring sky.

Pilgrims returning after Easter in Canterbury. Tokens of the mitered, martyred Saint Thomas are pinned to cloaks and hats — the Canterbury monks must be raking it in.

I won’t quote any more of the opening of Mistress of the Art of Death, but you get the idea: exuberant, irreverent, clever. (I loved “mitered, martyred Saint Thomas.”) It’s a catchy economical form of exposition and if the handwriting of Geoffrey Chaucer pokes out here and there, I didn’t have a problem with that. Ariana Franklin can hold her own.

Yet I had reservations. The bone I have to pick with Franklin is not really the issue of anachronism. As she points out in the Author’s Note, you can’t write a novel about the 12th century without it. For one thing, the narrative voice as we know it didn’t exist at the time, nor did most of our storytelling techniques. I do wonder a lot about imposing contemporary understandings of character and motivation on people who lived 1000 years ago but Hilary Mantel’s handling of Thomas Cromwell didn’t bother me. So I should at least be consistent about this.

Multiple anachronism: JWWaterhouse 1916, illustration for Boccaccio's "Decameron." But you'll admit it's vivid.

And there is a lot to enjoy in Mistress of the Art of Death. Franklin’s mastery of landscape, atmosphere, and pacing absolutely gripped my attention. However, this is basically a murder mystery dressed in historical costume and it’s not a formula that normally works for me. The basic structure of solving a murder is often incompatible with the historical framework. Here, for instance, we have Adelia, a proto-pathologist from Salerno. Proto-feminist, too: abrupt, efficient, outspoken, ultimately earning respect. She is in Cambridge to find out who has been killing small children, and the way she does so is by examining their bodies. Her sidekick is Mansur, the tall Muslim castrato. (I believe Franklin made him a castrato to explain the absence of sexual tension between him and Adelia; there’s no other reason for that quirk.) Finally, working with them, is Simon of Naples. Yes, a Jew. Three outcasts functioning on the outskirts of English society to solve a problem, exposing prejudice and ignorance along the way.

Well, I have a hard time with anachronistically plucky and capable females. Especially ones with white-blonde hair who unwittingly enchant the one highly-evolved male in the story. Sarah Dunant’s books walk this line sometimes, and I am usually ready to overlook the problem. Franklin exacerbated it, though, by giving Adelia advanced ideas about capital punishment: “She was a woman who regarded legislated death as an effrontery by those imposing it… because life, to her, who wished to save it, was the only true miracle. She was a woman who never sat with the judge or stood with the executioner but always clung to the bar with the accused.”

And yet the writing is so good, the dialogue so lively, the secondary characters such fun, that I suspect I’ll find myself back in Adelia’s company before long; Mistress of the Art of Death is the first in a series. One down, three to go.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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8 Responses to Ariana Franklin, “Mistress of the Art of Death”

  1. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  2. Annie says:

    Sorry to have to say this, but I think ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ is the best of the four and it’s pretty much downhill all the way from there. However, you may disagree. I’ll be interested to see how you get on with the next one.

  3. carolwallace says:

    Oh, good to know, Annie. Sometimes it seems as if writers use up a great deal of imaginative flourish on the first book — especially if it’s genre fiction. And then, if they are successful, they are under huge pressure to produce more, and I am increasingly convinced that you just can’t rush the process of imagining things.

  4. Teresa says:

    I didn’t get on with this book at all, mostly because the problems you mention with Adelia being anachronistically plucky and advanced annoyed me to the extreme. I can accept a certain amount of anachronism–certainly some degree of pluck in historical fiction heroines helps modern readers relate–but this book felt so aggressive about it. It seemed like the characters were we supposed to like couldn’t be allowed to hold any opinions that would have been more typical of their time.

  5. carolwallace says:

    Teresa, you put your finger on the problem. And it’s a pity, because Franklin is such a good writer in terms of creating the scenes and she’s obviously done such thorough research.

  6. Pingback: letters and sodas: booknotes » Blog Archive » Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana FranklinBerkley (Penguin), 2008 (Originally G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007)

  7. Katy H says:

    I really enjoyed ‘Mistress’ and also the follow up in the series. I have the third installment already, but felt I needed a little break from the series in order to give it a fresh look. My first read of Ms. Franklin’s was ‘City of Shadows,’ which tells another version of the Anna Anderson/Anastasia saga. I loved this one!

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, Katy, that sounds like a lot of fun. I’ve always been fascinated by that story. AND I have a cross-country plane trip tomorrow — guess you’ve solved my “what to read on the plane” dilemma! Thanks!

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