Novel Readings

Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death

I’m coming belatedly to this series of medieval mysteries featuring Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar–mercifully, just ‘Adelia’ most of the time–who is the eponymous ‘mistress of the art of death,’ which was launched in 2008. I’m generally wary of historical mysteries. Actually, I’m wary of most mysteries, though people often assume (because I teach courses in mystery and detective fiction) that I must read them avidly. Too many of them are too formulaic for my taste (though the issue of how we value [or label] formulaic vs. ‘original’ fiction is an issue we discuss at some length in my classes), and I’m not particularly interested in solving puzzles as I read. So when I read mysteries for pleasure, I gravitate to authors who emphasize character development and social context (P. D. James, Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin, for instance). I’m also a faithful fan of Robert B. Parker and Dick Francis (both of whom, sadly, died recently): their books are among my most frequent re-reads, actually. I’ve followed both Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton for many years now and will keep doing so, though Grafton with far less enthusiasm. And there are other books and authors in this genre that I love (Gaudy Night, The Daughter of Time) or find consistently interesting (Amanda Cross). But outside this group, which is pretty small considering just how vast the possibilities are, I can’t seem to get very excited, despite having sampled quite a lot of suggestions each time I’ve put out a ‘bleg‘ for teaching ideas. (Of course, books I get excited about reading for myself are not necessarily the same as books I get excited about using in my classes–Paul Auster’s City of Glass being a perfect example.)

Anyway, though I could ramble on about other mystery writers I’ve tried and liked or not liked recently (Denise Mina–liked! Inger Ash Wolf–not liked!), this post is supposed to be about Mistress of the Art of Death…which I liked. And then didn’t like. And then liked again.  I have a personal distaste for crime novels focusing on murdered children: I find it troubling to treat such grim possibilities as entertainment. So I had some difficulties initially with the set up of the crimes, which seemed sensationalistic, even manipulative. This distaste receded for much of the novel as I saw how stylishly Franklin proceeded with her historical context as well as with establishing her main characters and relationships. I’m no kind of expert on the 12th century, but in the Q&A at the end Franklin discusses her research as well as her (very endearing) nerdish enthusiasm for the many period details she mastered to write the book. I have to take her expertise on trust, but I can say that she made it all seem very convincing, and in general she dealt with it very naturally, not weighing down her narrative unduly with exposition and certainly not falling into any of the annoying faux Olde-Englishe stuff that makes a lot of historical fiction seem so artificial. She’s frank, in fact, about introducing anachronisms (including calling Cambridge ‘Cambridge’ instead of its medieval names) to make the story ‘comprehensible,’ and her dialogue especially is for the most part briskly contemporary.  She succeeds in making her chosen historical moment seem fraught with interesting tensions and possibilities, especially because of the religious and racial tensions that she uses effectively to frame the killings. And Adelia is a good character: smart, prickly, intense.

But…with all that going for it, I wish the crime had not turned out to be a medieval version of a fairly conventional psycho-killer plot: I thought towards the end  it collapsed into lurid melodrama, turning away from a compelling forensic investigation into a violent thriller in which the suspense comes not from wondering our way through clues and personalities but from waiting for the villain to take off his mask (literally!). And the revelation is a surprise, yes–but not one that particularly satisfies any story arc we’ve been following. With so much going right in the book to that point, I was surprised that it got so cheap so fast. Then there’s the romance subplot, which I found the least convincing aspect of the novel.

But…just when I thought I had the measure of the book–good start, bad finish–she brought in Henry II and made everything interesting again. So I’ll definitely search out the next one in the series. Next up, though, is Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers–long a front-runner to replace Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses as my example of the ‘grim contemporary’ police procedural in my class (not because I don’t like the Rankin, but because I would like a change, and also because the ‘internationalization’ of the crime novel in English seems to me the biggest recent development in the genre). I’ve tried Mankell before and gotten stumped by the bleakness of the atmosphere and what seemed a flatness in the style (or the translation). February seems the right month to try again, doesn’t it? I mean, who expects anything cheering in February?