Medieval crime scene investigations
Four children turn up murdered in 12th-century Cambridge, England, and the restless Catholic townspeople immediately pin the blame on local Jews. As the Jews flee to the safety of the castle, King Henry II seeking the truth as much as the return of his Jewish citizens to their tax-paying status hires a highly recommended investigator from the Salerno School of Medicine in Sicily to uncover the true killer. Enter Adelia, the so-called mistress of the art of death, who is not at all what Henry had been expecting. Whereas in Sicily, women attend medical school (Adelia studied a rudimentary form of forensic science, dissecting dead pigs in a Salerno lab), in England a female doctor would be labeled a witch. Adelia must keep her real identity under wraps, posing as the assistant to her own Muslim manservant while he acts as the doctor. Meanwhile, Adelia sets about her real work, mining the bodies of the murdered children for clues about their killer. Her task is made no easier by the fact that everyone is a suspect, including the handsome tax collector, Sir Rowley, whom the previously nun-like Adelia seems to be falling for. An overly formal narrative voice makes for a slow start, as antiquated speech and archaic vocabulary provide multiple stumbling blocks for readers trying to orient themselves in the medieval landscape. Those who trudge through the stilted first quarter of the book, however, will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Author Ariana Franklin's in-depth research (she is the author of historical novels and biographies under her real name, Diana Norman) produces a gripping narrative with meticulous detail about everything from the topography of Cambridge to race relations to medical conventions of the era. The issue of religious warfare strikes a particularly modern chord. When Adelia asks Rowley just what the Crusades are achieving, he responds, They're inspiring such a hatred amongst Arabs who used to hate each other that they're combining the greatest force against Christianity the world has ever seen. It's called Islam. Iris Blasi is a writer in New York City.