Thursday, September 20, 2007

CSI: Cambridge, circa 1171

Normally I'd wait until finishing a book before commenting on it, but since I'll be reveling in France for the next few days, I'll mention Mistress in the Art of Death, one of those books that looked intriguing at the bookstore, but not quite intriguing enough for me to lay out the price of a hardcover. Once again, my local library branch comes through. I'm about halfway through it now.

Briefly, the book is about a female forensics expert investigating a series of gruesome child murders in 12th century England. Yes, that sounds anachronistic -- my limited study of Medieval history somehow omitted all the women doctors of that time who tracked down serial killers with suspiciously up-to-date forensics techniques.

At least the protagonist is not beautiful; she's short, plain-looking and rather abrupt. And author Ariana Franklin has given her a plausible, if not entirely believable, back story: the doctor majored in "the art of death" at a medical school in Salerno, Italy, which evidently did exist and took a more liberal view of what women could do in those days. She's in England trying to prove that the child murders are not the work of the local Jewish population, and thus stave off a bloody insurrection.

It's audacious plotting, and mostly it works. There's a wealth of historical detail, and Franklin has taken care to weave real people, locations and events into her yarn. What bothers me most so far are little anachronistic slips in the writing. At one point, the protagonist Adelia reflects on how the Catholic Church is "raking it in" by exploiting the ignorant populace. At another, she recalls her days studying the decay of corpses at a body farm in Salerno. Was there such a thing in 1170? Somehow, I doubt it.

The book is interesting enough to finish, but it does remind me why I stopped reading Patricia Cornwell and watching all those CSI shows -- finally, serial killers and forensic probes are no longer all that interesting. It also reminds me of books that did this kind of thing better: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose comes to mind, or Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost.

4 comments:

Peter said...

I recently read and discussed Absolution by Murder, the first in Peter Tremayne's long-running series about Sister Fidelma, a lawyer/advocate/woman religious in seventh-century Ireland. One thing I liked is that Tremayne's apparently thorough research made each set of skills brought into play and every investigative technique plausible.

Fidelma, in Northumbria for a momentous ecclesiastical conference, is asked to investigate a murder in part because of her knowledge of law. Her temporary sidekick, a religious brother, supplies some forensic detection, for which he has a bit of a basis because he studied some medicine in Ireland. Fidelma knows her law because in seventh-century Ireland, according to the author's scholarship, women could practice in that and many other fields.

On the other hand, she is tall, striking and even has, if I remember correctly, red hair.

===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Dave K. said...

Now that book sounds very interesting. I do love historical settings if they ring true, but not everyone can bring it off. I'll definitely have a look.

Peter said...

It's worth looking at. My two criticisms have to do with style, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt because that was the first in the series, and he's written about fifteen more.

I have bought one of the more recent books, and I'll read that before I draw conclusions about Peter Tremayne's style. But in the first book, he presented such a thorough and convincing picture of the time, that I was able to overlook any quibbles I might have had, and there were few.

Tremayne is or was a scholar in Celtic studies, so he should know what he's talking about. In fact, I read an interview in which he said that his idea for the Fidelma series grew out of a question that someone asked him after a lecture.

There are a few medieval crime fiction blogs and Web sites, by the way. One recently had a post about medieval forensics.

===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Peter said...

I'd forgotten that you read this book until I found your comment via a blog search. Mistress of the Art of Death impressed me, especially since I’ve always been apprehensive about historical crime fiction. But Mistress … does a neat job of keeping itself accessible to contemporary sensibilities while remaining a plausible take of 12th-century England. I’d call that quite a feat, and I look forward to reading the second book in the series.

There might be a small anachonism in the book, other than the ones that the author herself acknowledges in her afterword. That anachronism is not Adelia's medical training, by the way. I did a bit of research on the book before I posted a comment on my blog. I don't know if there were corpse farms in the 1170, but women indeed could train in medicine at Salerno even before the twelfth century.

I enjoyed the "raking it in" comment. For one thing, it came during a sequence that clearly refers to The Canterbury Tales, itelf not the most reverent of books. For another, there must have been irreverent souls in every historical period.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"