Mistress of the Art of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death Series #1)

Mistress of the Art of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death Series #1)

by Ariana Franklin


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The national bestselling hit hailed by the New York Times as a "vibrant medieval mystery...[it] outdoes the competition."

In medieval Cambridge, England, Adelia, a female forensics expert, is summoned by King Henry II to investigate a series of gruesome murders that has wrongly implicated the Jewish population, yielding even more tragic results. As Adelia's investigation takes her behind the closed doors of the country's churches, the killer prepares to strike again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425219256
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/29/2008
Series: Mistress of the Art of Death Series , #1
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 176,642
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Ariana Franklin is the pen name of British writer Diana Norman. A bestselling author and former journalist, she lives in England with her husband, the film critic Barry Norman.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A fabulous read...irresistible." — New York Daily News "Vivid and engaging...succeeds brilliantly as both historical fiction and crime thriller. [A] terrific book...with a dozen twists." — Diana Gabaldon, Washington Post "One of the most compelling, suspenseful mysteries I've read in years." — New York Times bestselling author Sharon Kay Penman "The medieval answer to Kay Scarpetta and the CSI detectives." — Karen Harper, bestselling author of the Elizabeth I mystery series "Fascinating...a rollicking microcosm of budding science, medieval culture, and edge-of-your-seat suspense." — USA Today "Expert researched, a brilliant heroine." — Kate Mosse, New York Times bestselling author of Labyrinth "CSI meets The Canterbury Tales...commercial paydirt...delivered with panache." — Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Reading Group Guide


Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, heroine of Ariana Franklin's historical thriller Mistress of the Art of Death, is a woman out of place in her own time. An orphan raised by an atheist Jew in twelfth-century Salerno, Adelia has mastered the "art of death" (what we would today recognize as forensic medicine) in an age when medical practitioners of any sort are viewed as witches and sorcerers, and a woman's only place is in the home or in the convent. But when the horrific killing of a Christian boy in England casts murderous suspicion on the local Jewish population—threatening their lives and, more important, the tax revenue they generate—the legendary Plantagenet king Henry II implores the King of Sicily to dispatch his best master of this frightful new science to solve the crime. Thus begins Adelia's pursuit of Rakshasa, the devilish serial killer who has left a grotesque trail of dead children stretching from the Crusade-torn Middle East to the bustling medieval port town of Cambridge—where the death count has soon reached four and anti-Semitic sentiment is nearing a boiling point.

Mistress of the Art of Death employs the narrative devices of a modern thriller to explore the world of medieval Europe, weaving historical figures and events into the plot to provide a view of the twelfth century that is often at odds with the conventional label of "Dark Ages." While Adelia's education, self-sufficiency, and scientific rationalism are anathema to the medieval Catholic Church's superstitious dogma and misogynistic social hierarchy, she is not alone in her surprisingly modern mind-set. Her home city of Salerno is a bastion of scientific inquiry, where Jew, Catholic, and Muslim live as equals; Henry II, though self-serving and ruthless, promotes religious tolerance and sets the foundation for today's Western system of justice; and even the holy city of Jerusalem, before the ravages of the Crusades, finds people of every faith living in relative harmony.

Set against this rich background is the story itself, a serial-killer mystery propelled by a sociopath every bit as gruesome and frightening as the fictional (and real) killers of today. Rakshasa's crimes are shocking enough in and of themselves, but when committed in the context of the era's pervasive superstition they take on demonic qualities that the people of Cambridge view as all too real. These same superstitions make Adelia's challenge as an investigator nearly insurmountable: the examining of dead bodies is a desecration, scientific inquiry is the work of the devil, and the implication of religious figures in the crime is blasphemy. Adding to these obstacles is Adelia's status as a mere woman—and one of dubious honor—who travels with two despised heathens, a Jew and a Muslim. Soon one of these companions, Simon of Naples, is dead, and this loss, added to her unexpected attachment to the people she meets in Cambridge, transforms Adelia's mission from one of duty into one of desperate need. Ultimately, her unconventional manner and methods bring Adelia to the attention of both Henry II and an unlikely suitor—and land her directly in the pit of the beast himself, the depraved former Crusader now known as Rakshasa.


Ariana Franklin, author of City of Shadows, is the pen name of British writer Diana Norman. A former journalist, Norman has written several critically acclaimed biographies and historical novels. She lives in Hertfordshire, England, with her husband, the film critic Barry Norman.


  • Although the majority of Mistress of the Art of Death is written in the third person, the novel opens and closes in a kind of collective first-person voice, describing what "we" have seen and heard. Whom or what do you think this voice is supposed to represent? Is it the voice of the reader, the author, history itself—or something else entirely?
  • Adelia encounters many people who are, as she describes to Brother Gilbert, "hateful"—Roger of Acton, Prioress Joan, Sir Gervase—while the two who are ultimately revealed as the killers come across as genteel, even virtuous. Does this dichotomy hold any symbolic meaning?
  • Adelia falls in love with Rowley Picot but rejects his proposal because she fears it would mean the end of her work. Do you think she made the right decision? Given that Picot "wanted her as she was," could they have created an arrangement that would have allowed them to marry while still giving Adelia her freedom?
  • In describing Jerusalem, Picot reflects, "That's what you don't expect—how tangled it all is....You think...God bless, that fellow kneeling to a cross, he's a Christian, he must be on our side—and he is a Christian, but he isn't necessarily on your side, he's just as likely to be in an alliance with a Moslem prince." In what ways does the "tangled" Middle East of the twelfth century seem similar to the troubled region of today? In what ways is it different? Does this depiction of Jerusalem a thousand years ago shed any light on the predicament there now?
  • Ariana Franklin has said that she intended her depiction of Henry II to serve as a kind of rebuttal to the harsh judgment history has made of him. How did you react to Henry as a character? Is he likable? Did he come across as truly progressive, or merely expedient? If you were familiar with him before reading this book, has your opinion of him changed?
  • Some of the superstitions presented in the book—such as the idea of medicine as "witchcraft"—seem ludicrous by today's standards. Imagine today's society as viewed from a vantage point of a thousand years in the future: What commonly held beliefs do you think would seem ridiculous? Whom can you picture as modern-day Adelias—people whose ideas are seen today as incorrect, even outrageous, but who will be looked back at as ahead of their time?
  • Adelia is horrified by the fate of Sister Veronica, and goes so far as to petition King Henry to have her released. Do you think her punishment was just? If not, what do you believe would have been the appropriate punishment for her crimes?
  • Despite his position as King of England, Henry is unable to intervene in the cases of Roger of Acton and Sister Veronica because his power is subject to the approval of the Catholic Church. Do you see any benefit, in the larger scheme, to this arrangement? Does it provide a necessary check to Henry's powers, or does it hold the greater good hostage?
  • Customer Reviews

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    Mistress of the Art of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death Series #1) 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 233 reviews.
    harstan More than 1 year ago
    In 1171 England, the Jews were given a haven under King Henry¿s rule, not because he liked them but they paid one seventh of the monies in the royal treasury. In the town of Cambridge, four children have disappeared and the body of only one has been found. A rumor begins that Jews killed the child. In retaliation a mob went on a killing spree, bodily tearing apart two Jews while the survivors take sanctuary in Cambridge Castle.----------------- In Sicily the king at the request of Henry II sends three people (Simon a Jew, Mansur a Muslim and the doctor of the dead Adelia Agutar) to England to find the killer. When they arrive the dead bodies of the three children are waiting for their analysis. Adelia knows that all the victims were killed by the same murderer. Adelia who misses her native Salerno finds a place for herself in England and during the course of her investigation she teams up with tax collector Sir Rowley to find the murderer but not before he kills someone dear to her who was closing in on him.------------------- Cross the forensic science of a Kay Scarpetta novel with the historical background of Judith Tarr book and the reader will have some idea of what the MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH is all about. Adelia is a great character, a female pioneer allowed to practice in the one country advanced enough to grant females that privilege. She is a plain speaker who seeks justice for the dead and has no tolerance for prejudice of any kind. She has more freedom than the average female in the Middle Ages and she knows how to use it to do what she wants. Readers will admire her and look forward to the next mystery starring this intrepid heroine.--------------- Harriet Klausner
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    I have to say that this story grabbed me by the arm and dragged me in and would not let me go until the last page. And the author really did use Henry II as an effective character and an important object lesson. Ariana Franklin's delightful humor is present throughout the piece -- even in the story's most dire moment, when Adelia is bound and trapped within breathing range of Death itself. Her characters have complex backgrounds that shed light on their present relations and actions -- the Prior's relationship with the housekeeper he hires for Adelia, and King Henry II has his own personal motivation for summoning these foreign specialists. Interestingly, the backstory comes neatly into play in the end: swoopingly, when King Henry arrives to see to matters himself, and subtly, when Adelia's housekeeper secretly passes on her relationship and the prior to Adelia and her love. In Medieval Europe, a woman educated in the Art of Death in the famous school of medicine in Salerno, is sent to investigate a murder mystery. Accompanied by the renown mediator Simon of Naples and her eunuch manservant, Mansur, Adelia -- the Mistress of the Art of Death -- ventures into Cambridge to find the murderer. By chance, she arrives to find the Prior of the town ill -- unable to piss. Though she knows how to treat his infection, being a woman, she must perform the operation in secret to avoid charges of witchcraft. Thus, despite her formidable knowledge in forensic pathology, to the people of Cambridge, she must pose as an assistant to her manservant, who must pretend to be the doctor in charge. The writing is well done and perfect after a long day.   
    Tsudonym More than 1 year ago
    Mistress of the Art of Death is a delightful historical novel! Called north from the Mediterranean to solve a delicate series of child murders in the England of Henry II, the unique characters face bias directed at themselves (an educated woman is fine in Renaissance Italy, but in the more barbaric North? and she's traveling with an Italian and a Muslim!) as well as the bias directed at the Jews who were blamed for the murders! The case is interesting, the lead character uses alchemy and botany training to be the "CSI" on the case to 'talk to the dead' and learn their stories to solve the murders. But the true strength of the book lies in historical feel of the period, personal relationships, and the portrayal of the King - the author has truly nailed Henry II! This is the first in a series. I've loved the first two and am getting ready to start the third. Read Mistress of the Art of Death to escape, to visit a legitimate historical time in European history, or to follow the criminal case from beginning to end, but read it!
    LadyHester More than 1 year ago
    Besides the fact that it is hard to imagine a female doctor who studied corpses in the 1100's......I enjoyed the book. The author has a unique way of writing and often has incomplete sentence structure. I was not expecting the love story near the end since the heroine is fiercely independent and dedicated to her calling. I am interested enough in the characters to pursue book #2.
    srbSH More than 1 year ago
    The king who supported his Jewish inhabitants because he could always borrow from them, receives a plea from them to investigate the grisly murder of a young Jewish boy in Cambridge, England. Henry sends for experts from the famed medical school in Salerno, Italy. At the head of the team is a Jewish healer and expert on cadavers - and a woman (!) - whose teacher insists that she go in his place to help solve the murder. And so she does, in the company of Gordinus the African and Mordecai fil Berachyah, an intermediary. Adelia must use her wits because both as a Jew and as a woman she is forbidden to touch a man. Indeed, one of her first challenges on arriving in England is to perform an operation on a priest. All the characters - evil and good, women and men - are well drawn and interesting. Glimpses of everyday medieval village, religious, and family life counterbalance the dark events. Horrifying are the continuing murders of children and the awful details of their deaths. Strong evidence suggests that the murderer might be a former Knight Templar. Especially gripping (and romantic) is the growing relationship between Adelia and Sir Rowley Picot, himself a former Knight Templar and thus a suspect. Suspense builds as Adelia rushes to rescue the latest victim at the risk of her own life. Who the madman is, is not revealed until the very end. WHEW!
    HistoricalFictionNut More than 1 year ago
    I thoroughly enjoyed this book! The author did a wonderful job of intertwining very interesting historical points with a suspenseful, mysterious plot. The characters are very well-written, and the book flows very smoothly. I can't wait to check out her other titles; I hope they're as good as this one!
    TWTaz More than 1 year ago
    I really enjoyed this book and the author's style of writing. Kept my interest from beginning to end. Adelia is a standout in a cast of memorable characters, and I look forward to more stories featuring them. Just enough mixture of history, mystery and romance and none of the excess detail that some writers pack their books with that can take away from the central story. Can't wait to read about Adelia's next "case."
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Historical fiction with a twist. And whether it is realistic or not is not the issue. Other reviewers have said, this would never have happened. But this book is about 'what if it did'. This work shows historical knowledge of the times and brings a 21st century mentality to it. A great read and a page turner! If you like history and fiction-just read and enjoy without over analyzing. You won't be disappointed!
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    This was my second go at this book, and I am not quite sure why I put it down after 10 pages the last time. Likely, I was not in the mood for death and mystery. Now I kick myself for taking so long to get to this marvelous tale. It seems I am in the state of reading historical fiction, without even meaning to. And once again, my lack of knowledge on our historical past is driving me bonkers. I finished Mistress of the Art of Death itching to pick up a book on the history of England and the crusades. Adelia, the main character, is amazingly charming, given all her anti-social characteristics, and I found mysels wishing I could sit down to dine with her. Pick her brain, befriend her, share in her isolation, come to understand how her mind ticks. I also wished to dine and befriend many of the other characters, including Mansur, Simon of Naples, the Prior, and really much of the entire cast of characters. The plot, the mystery, was intigruing, if not a little cliche and I wished that there were more explanation of the behavior of the murderer. Yet, I cannot wait to pick up The Serpent's Tale to bring Adelia back into my life. What may have been lacking, or cliche, in the plot was more than made up for by the characters.
    curlysueFl More than 1 year ago
    The time is 1171 England. The King is Henry II. Problem number one is that four children have been brutally murdered and the Catholic townsfolk are blaming the Cambridge Jews. Problem number two is possible finanicial ruin for Henry's country. The taxes he receives from Jewish merchants helps England prosper and with the Catholic's out for blood Henry must sequester the entire Jewish population within the castle walls for their safety. The solution is Adelia Aguilar. Henry II calls upon his cousin the King of Sicily to send his finest "master of the art of death," the earliest form of a medical examiner to rid his country of this heinous killer. Adelia is a student at the University of Salerno. Highly capable, strongly independent, frustratedly stubborn, and fighting not to show any vulnerability she is thrust into a backward country where she has to hide her identity for fear of being persecuted as a "witch." Accompanying her is her eunoch bodyguard and a Jew from Naples. During their investigation the team meets many possible suspects and a few allies. This book is full of historic information. There are twists and turns that will keep you on the edge of your seat. There are disturbing images about the manner of death these children faced. There is a touch of romance and a conclusion that will make you say "you go girl." If you like historical fiction, mysteries, don't mind a little romance, and your not too squeamish about murders involving children- this is the one for you.
    soon2bauthor More than 1 year ago
    This book has a witty plot it's a who done it, and why book. It took us through all the steps that anyone could wish for. Forbidden love, S & M, child murder. How's fault is it? A women who is traveling with a Black eunuch, and a investigator Jew. Though much of the action screams of a "B" horro movie plot, it can be over looked. This book even had the trial that is mostly always absent from other arrested murderer book. Truly a fun and good read.
    Anonymous 9 months ago
    good characters, some history. page turned ending. will read more by Ariana Franklin.sd
    SheReadsNovels on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Mistress of the Art of Death is the first in a series of medieval historical mysteries by the late Ariana Franklin.This book has an unusual heroine. Her name is Adelia Aguilar and she is a trained doctor, very rare in the year 1171. Adelia is from Salerno, where women are allowed to attend medical school. Her speciality, however, is as a 'doctor of the dead' - in other words, she is skilled in performing autopsies and finding out the causes of death. When several young children go missing in Cambridge and the city's Jews are blamed for the disappearances, Adelia is sent to England to investigate.I love reading about medieval history and Franklin touches on many different aspects of the period - from the big things, such as the relationship between the church and the monarchy, to the small, such as the clothes people wore and the food they ate. Adelia, being Italian, is unfamiliar with the politics and customs of 12th century England, which allows the reader to learn along with her - so no need to worry if you don't have much knowledge of the period. Despite some very modern dialogue and Adelia's distinctly 21st century thought processes, everything else felt suitably 'medieval'. Setting and atmosphere are so important in fiction and this is an area in which I thought Franklin excelled. It wouldn't really be fair for me to comment on the historical accuracy as I haven't studied the 12th century in any detail but I would say that if you're looking for a serious piece of historical fiction which is correct in every detail then you need to look elsewhere. Accept this book for what it is though, and it's an enjoyable read.The writing in the prologue and opening chapters feels quite light and humorous and I expected the whole book to have the same tone, but when Adelia begins to investigate the mystery things start to feel a lot darker. I should point out that the story does revolve around the abduction and murder of children which isn't nice to read about; it's quite graphic in places and a bit disturbing. As for the mystery itself, I didn't guess who the murderer was, but then I wasn't really trying to guess. Sometimes I prefer not to attempt to work things out and just enjoy the story - and this was one of those occasions.I found Adelia a fascinating and engaging character although, as I mentioned earlier, she thought, spoke and behaved more like a woman from the 21st century than the 12th. She's a strong, independent person who is constantly questioning the role of women in society and has a very modern outlook on medicine, the law and life in general; I liked her but she wasn't a believable medieval woman. Most of the secondary characters are well-rounded and interesting, particularly Adelia's housekeeper, Gyltha, and her grandson, Ulf - and I loved the depiction of Henry II.I enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death and I look forward to being reacquainted with Adelia Aguilar in the other three books in the series.
    richardgarside on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    CSI in breeches - Diverting but little substance. Just a regular whodunnit transferred to medieaval times to make it seem different.
    wyvernfriend on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    While occasionally this suffers from modernity it is also an interesting read with some great characters. The descriptions of early murder are quite gruesome but still understandable. I saw a review where the reviewer referred to this as Bones meets Cadfael. I wouldn't completely disagree. Adelia has some of the same compulsions that Tempe Brennan has to speak for the dead, to say what needs to be said.While there are moments when it did falter, I did really enjoy this story, even with it's occasional modern morality and attitude. I look forward to reading more by this author.
    gypsysmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    At first I wasn't sure if I wanted to read about a serial killer alive in mediaval England. The killings seemed especially gruesome. And I didn't immediately care for Adelia either; she seemed almost one-dimensional. I think it was about the time that she and Rowley got injured protecting Simon's grave from the mob that I really started to like her and started rooting for her. And I really loved the character of Ulf, the small boy who started out suspicious of Adelia but then became her source and local interpreter.In fact, there were lots of characters that I liked. Rowley was an unlikely hero but when he told Adelia why he wanted to catch the murderer I discovered he had hidden depths. Glytha was also a great character. She's a great cook, an independent woman and passionate about Ulf, her grandson. I especially liked Prior Geoffrey who is operated on by Adelia in the first chapter. He turns out to be her best supporter in Cambridge.The king certainly does have a major part to play and I guess it's a good thing he forbids Adelia returning to Salerno. Otherwise we wouldn't have more books to look forward to.
    Bellettres on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Good mystery, set in 12th century England, during the reign of Henry II. Adelia is a doctor, trained in Salerno, and does the work of a medical examiner. The story focuses on Adelia's efforts to exonerate the Jews of Cambridge of the murder of several young children. It's a suspenseful tale that addresses some of the horrors of anti-Semistism, as well as what it was (perhaps) like to be an educated woman in a world ruled by men. Well-written, likeable characters, and a plot that incorporates some historical events, made this an entertaining and mildly thought-provoking read.
    gretchenlg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    An Italian woman who is a doctor of forensics travels with a black Muslim protector and a Jewish scholar to England to solve the mystery of missing Jewish children during medieval times? Throw in some religious zealots and some grisly murder scenes and you've got yourself one great book.
    pmorris on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A well-told tale of an 'investigative doctor' in 12th century Cambridge, England. Adelia, a doctor from the School of Medicine in Italy¿s Salerno (then part of the Kingdom of Sicily) is called upon to uncover who (or what) is killing children in and around Cambridge. According to the author, the world she describes is as accurate as her research allows. The story includes historical elements in the form of people (Henry II and his court) and places (Cambridge and it's environs), but the real attraction is the intriguing story itself.
    lindymc on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Adelia, a female doctor trained in Salerno is summoned to Cambridge in England to determine the cause of death of children there, whose murder has been blamed on the Jews. Henry II want the Jews cleared, (he depends on their wealth) and sends for a someone trained in the art of death, what we now call a forensics expert. Henry does not expect the expert to be a woman. This is a great mystery, with a bit of a love story; great secondary characters. I love the role that Henry II played when he makes an appearance near the end of the book.
    Riyale on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Great historical mystery. A different take on the medieval female investigating the crime. Believable plot line (as it's based on fact not fiction) and wonderful characterizations. I' glad to have discovered this one and can't wait to read more in the series.
    MColv9890 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I had to read this for a class. I never would have picked it up otherwise and I'm sad to say that my original judgment was correct, this book lacks anything of value for me.
    BakaNeko82 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    It was a bit of a slow starter, but the build-up was well done. I wish the character development was a little more in depth and clear cut. A good book if you enjoy historical fiction and forensics.
    Kellswitch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    A murder mystery set during the rule of Henry II. I cannot say how historically accurate it is in regards to characterization or what medical knowledge was known at the time but I did feel it did a great job of invoking the feel of the time period overall.For the most part I felt the characters were quite believable and were all enjoyable and fun to get to know, though again I'm not sure how historically accurate they all were.I did find it a bit off putting that all but one of the religious figures in this book were villainized, I know that corruption was rampant and this was a time of huge conflict between church and state, I just find it hard to believe they were all that bad at the same time and place.The mystery itself was well crafted and while it feel victim to some of the usual cliches of mystery books, none of them really took anything away from the overall story.I am looking forward to reading more in this series.
    SheilainMexico on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    best of her books - though ALL are worth reading