Mistress of the Art of Death
is a historical crime novel by Ariana Franklin, the pen name of acclaimed journalist and historical novelist Diana Norman. Set in twelfth-century England, the book follows Sicilian forensic pathologist Adelia Aguilar after she is hired by King Henry II to investigate the deaths of four Catholic children in Cambridge, whose deaths have been blamed on local wealthy Jews. The book, highly engaged with the period in which it is set, includes a Muslim manservant, a crusader, pilgrims from Canterbury, and in-depth historical details about the realities of life for women in different parts of Europe during the Middle Ages.
King Henry II hires Adelia to work undercover on the murders of four children in Cambridge, England. Adelia, trained as a pathologist at the Salerno School of Medicine, is widely known for her ability to determine cause of death and conduct basic forensic investigations. For this reason, she has been given the title Mistress of the Art of Death. Though in Sicily, where she was educated, Adelia is not an anomaly, a female doctor in England would be accused of witchcraft the moment she revealed her knowledge. Because of this, Adelia has to pose as the assistant to her Muslim servant, Mansur, to avoid suspicion.
The sudden, gruesome deaths of the children in Cambridge lead the local Catholics to blame the Jews, whose high tax revenues help to keep King Henry II afloat. When the Jews flee, Henry takes it upon himself to find the real killer, in order to restore his tax dollars and bring peace back to Cambridge. When Adelia arrives and begins to investigate the bodies, she realizes quickly that she is dealing with a serial killer. The children were brutally mutilated, and Adelia finds a connection through quincunxes, symbols that create the sign of the cross and include five points – four equidistant on the outside and one point in the center.
Adelia quickly accumulates a laundry list of potential suspects. She is curious about the pilgrims who recently returned from Canterbury, and a few crusaders, including tax collector Sir Rowley Picot. Narrowing down her list of suspects, however, turns out to be even more challenging than creating it. Adelia isn't getting anywhere when one of her close friends, Simon of Naples, who has been serving as her primary agent and go-between, is murdered too. Simon's murder reveals a secret about the formerly brusque Sir Rowley. Rather than being a suspect, Adelia discovers that he is actually on an investigation of his own – he is tracking a child-murderer that he believes could be the culprit for the murders of Simon and the four Cambridge children.
Sir Rowley's revelation and Simon's death soften Adelia, who was stern and nun-like in personality before. The more she and Sir Rowley work together to find the murderer, the more she is drawn to him, and a romance begins to blossom between the two. However, their romance is interrupted by a sickness that sweeps through the local convent, which Adelia and Rowley think could be related to the killer. As the novel draws to a close and suspects are investigated and subsequently set aside, only to be taken back up again, the housekeeper's son Ulf is kidnapped, and suddenly Adelia, Rowley, and Mansur are on a mission to rescue the boy before he is killed too.
The book ends with a battle on local Wandlebury Hill, during which Ulf is rescued and the villain is torn to shreds by a pack of local dogs, much to the satisfaction of Adelia, Rowley, and the townsfolk who finally have closure on the deaths of their children. However, before the final revelation, the reader is projected into the Medieval world the characters inhabit – Franklin conducts extensive research on the topography of Cambridge, the history of Medieval medicine and forensic investigation, and the lasting impact of religious wars.
Diana Norman published six historical mystery novels under the pen name Ariana Franklin, including three other Adelia Aguilar novels. Mistress of the Art of Death
(2007) won the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award and was followed by The Death Maze
, Relics of the Dead
, and A Murderous Procession
. A Murderous Procession
, the final Adelia Aguilar novel, won the British Crime Writer Association's Dagger in the Library Award. Norman also wrote eleven historical novels under her own name, and three books of non-fiction. Her final book as Ariana Franklin, The Winter's Siege
, was completed by her daughter Samantha Norman after Norman's death in 2011. It is a stand-alone novel and was published in 2015.