It's always a gift to me when I discover a new and compelling author. In this case, I lucked into a compelling author with a SERIES.
The author is British historical writer Ariana Franklin. The book is an historical murder mystery titled Mistress of the Art of Death.
The thriller is set in late twelfth century England where King Henry II has a number of problems. First there's his feud with the Catholic Church following the murder of Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Then there's the rebellions his wife and sons keep whipping up to dethrone him.
On top of everything else, children in Cambridge are being kidnapped and murdered, and the Jews are being blamed. After Cambridge's most prosperous Jewish citizen and his wife are torn to pieces by a furious mob, the rest of the local Jewish population has been forced to take refuge in the castle of the sheriff.
Since Jews are the only people permitted to lend money at interest, Henry's tax revenues take a nose dive when "his Jews" are removed from practicing usury. Furious and desperate, Henry contacts his future son-in-law, the King of Sicily, asking for help in solving the murders.
William of Sicily contacts Salerno, home of the most famous medical school in the civilized world, and demands their best "master in the art of death," a doctor who can read the evidence of a corpse.
The book opens with a pilgrimage, much like in The Canterbury Tales. Included among the knights and the clergy returning to Cambridge is an odd trio: Simon of Naples, a Jewish "fixer"; Adelia Aguilur, a mistress of the art of death; and her bodyguard, the eunuch Mansur.
Adelia had been abandoned an an infant on the slopes of the mountain Vesuvius. A married Jewish couple found and adopted her. Since both were physicians, Adelia was raised at Salerno and became a doctor herself. Now she has been dispatched to solve the serial killings in Cambridge.
Since Medieval England would regard her as a witch for her skill in medicine, she is forced to pretend the Arab Mansur is the real doctor and she, his assistant. There are numerous humorous episodes with Adelia and Mansur "conferring" in Arabic about their patients. When she cures the local prior of his urinary problem by shoving a river reed up his penis to drain his bladder, you know Cambridge will never be the same.
Adelia finds an unexpected love as she goes about examining bodies, healing citizens and searching for clues.
She and her companions quietly investigate the murders of four children, all of whom disappeared from near the River Cam. Suspects abound: knights, monks, a tax collector, a keeper of the hounds and all sorts of ordinary Cambridge citizens.
The Washington Post described the book:
Adelia finds 12th-century England a barbarous place. England finds Adelia a jaw-dropping anomaly. And Franklin exploits the contrast brilliantly. We're on Adelia's side from the start, identifying with her quite modern sensibilities -- but at the same time, as she begins to know the English inhabitants as people, we sympathize with them, too ...I finished Mistress of the Art of Death in two days. Also read the second in the series The Serpent's Tale as quickly. Waiting now for Book 3, Grave Goods. Book 4 was released on April 1.
Though the story is set in Cambridge, the Crusades run through the culture. We see both the corruption and the idealistic faith of the period, and while the Jews come off by far the best, Christians and Muslims are portrayed with evenhanded understanding. Beyond this, the story's background is a wonderful tapestry of the paradoxes and struggles of the times: Christianity and Islam, Christians and Jews, science and superstition, and the new power of Henry II's rule of law versus the stranglehold of the Church.
Do yourself a favor and run to find these mysteries. You'll thank me.