Thursday, 4 December 2008

Murder and mayhem

As I said in a previous post, I've been bingeing on murder. Something to do with the time of year, I think - long dark evenings demand dark deeds. The first book that I had been going to write about is The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards, but Nan has recently reviewed it so beautifully that I don't think there is anything I can add, except to say that I too enjoyed it, and am about to seek out the next in the series. Maybe I'll write about that instead, but I wouldn't be surprised if Nan beats me to it (I think she is better organised than I am!)

Next in my pile of spoils after a recent trip to the library was
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. This is a book I'd seen reviewed a number of times, and thought looked interesting – in fact, I searched the library catalogue for it last year, without success, I recall. And then recently a revelation: this isn't a new writer at all, but another name for Diana Norman, an old favourite. I heard her talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival some years ago, along with another writer I admire, Margaret Elphinstone, and they were very entertaining. So, first of all, I recommend Diana Norman's books to anyone who hasn't read them, they are great fun, whizzing you along at a splendid pace and with great period detail. And second, I couldn't put Mistress of the Art of Death down, reading with bated breath from start to finish and hoping that Adelia Aguilar is not the only character to return in subsequent books.

The setting is Cambridge in the 12th century, during the reign of Henry II – in fact, not long after the horrifying death of the now-canonised Thomas Becket. England has only recently emerged from the shadows of the dreadful civil war in which the supporters of Stephen and Matilda ravaged the country and the feeling that peace is all-too precarious is well conveyed; the Jews of Cambridge are all but besieged in the castle after the death of a local child, and the disappearance of two more. Adelia, a 12th-century forensic pathologist (almost too fashionable a heroine, my dears!) has been sent by the King of Sicily to investigate, the economy of much of Europe being dependent on the financial acumen of the Jews. Adelia, though much given to seeing "the skull beneath the skin", is a caring doctor, and is soon ministering to the poor of the city while she conducts her investigation. Her self-appointed protector, Prior Geoffrey, provides her with several new members of her entourage, including the redoubtable Gyltha and her young son, Ulf. The household shown here reminds me of a recent discussion on the radio (possibly on Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time?) about the ways in which the family has changed over time, since Adelia's servants rapidly achieve family status, a reflection of a time when extended families were the norm and members were not necessarily related.

I've talked before about an author's "feel" for period, and I think Franklin writes effectively about this and, indeed, most periods she turns her attention to. However, she has acquired something of a reputation for good research, and this is a subject where I have slightly ambivalent feelings – on the one hand, I think a good novel is a good novel and accuracy isn't the most important thing in the world, but on the other, I think her research isn't as good as it's cracked up to be. She admits that it's nearly impossible to avoid anachronisms when writing historical novels, and I was happy to make allowances, but only up to a point - please, please, please, Ariana, don't write another description of social dance in 12th-century England.

The final verdict, though, is good fun, good characterisation, and a pretty convincing portrait of Henry II.


  1. I read Mistress of the Art of Death last year and loved it. Your review brought it all back! I didn't know she is Diana Norman, but then I've not read any Diana Norman books anyway - more to add to the tbr list.

  2. I do recommend her other books - The Vizard Mask is good, and I liked Shores of Darkness though a friend I lent it to carped about the anachronisms, and there are two about the American War of Independence, A Catch of Consequence and Taking Liberties. All her books have good strong female characters, but she's good at making you care for the men as well.

  3. I loved this book and waited avidly for the second in the series. However, when it came, I have to say that I was disappointed in 'The Death Mask'. In particular, it seemed a shame, given that it is in part about the ability of a woman to do those things society doesn't allow, that the only times it really came to life were when the important men came on the scene. If there is a third I will read it in the hope that she picks up again, but I'm not actively waiting for it.

  4. I absolutely loved this book! I have The Serpent's Tale but haven't read it, yet.