Wednesday, July 9, 2008

For Every Book There is a Season

Lately I've been talking to various people about seasonal reading, and why we do it. Most of us seem to match the mood of what we're reading to the mood that the seasons put us in. So I'm joyful and read fun stuff in the summer, my favorite season. If I'm going to read a Russian novel, I usually do it in the winter. In the spring and fall I most often tackle difficult or even potentially depressing reading.

Why, then, did I just read Ariana Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, a murder mystery set in the dark ages? I guess the murder mystery part balances out the dark ages part; it reminded me of the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. It also made me wonder what's going on with new books about women detectives in the middle ages. One of my "car books" this spring was about a woman who went to some kind of legal school in Ireland in the middle ages, and there she was, the upstart minx, skulking around a medieval castle, figuring out who killed an abbess. The Mistress of the Art of Death, Adelia, is a female physician trained in Salerno and skilled as a pathologist, of all things, who is sent to what is now Cambridge, England to investigate a series of child murders. The murderer leaves clues on the bones of his victims, which doesn't spare us all the Kay-Scarpetta-type looks at the soft tissue, but does make the plot more believable. She has to pretend that her servant is the doctor and she his assistant, lest the church burn her as a witch, but there are more rational people in Cambridge than, as Lady Bracknell would put it "statistics have laid down for our guidance." Also she runs out of money at one point and it looks like a crisis for her, but then that issue falls by the wayside and she solves the mystery while preserving her independence from the man she loves. Okay, so there are my quibbles with the book.

But despite its unlikely premise, Mistress of the Art of Death is quite enjoyable. The historical background is well researched, and there are several points at which the fiction explains something that actually did happen (some of Henry II's motives in dealing with the Roman church). The interesting part of the plot involves the village Jewish population, who have been blamed for the murders Adelia has come to investigate, and a Crusader's story about how good and evil are not so clearly delineated in the holy land as in England. The interesting characterizations center on Adelia's platonic relationships with her Jewish partner in detection, Simon, and her Saracen protector, Mansur.

Like all good detectives, Adelia listens even to children, and so when she is sitting with the son of her cook and housekeeper, she figures out that all of the crimes have the river Cam in common:

"The sun was down now and there were fewer boats on the Cam; those that were had lanterns at the prow so that the river became an untidy necklace of lights.
Still the two of them sat where they were, reluctant to leave, attracted and repelled by the river, so close to the souls of the children it had taken that the rustle of its reeds seemed to carry their whispers.
Ulf growled at it. 'Why don't you run backwards, you bugger?'
Adelia put her arms round his shoulders; she could have wept for him. Yes, reverse nature and time. Bring them home."

Even though it strikes me as unlikely (not to mention anachronistic) that a child would articulate such abstract thinking in such a situation, I liked it. If you're like me, you get swept up in the authenticity of most of the language in the book, and so you can forgive the occasional lapses into modernity that make this book a quick and easy read.

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