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.
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.