In medieval Cambridge, England, four children have been murdered. The crimes are immediately blamed on the town’s Jewish community, taken as evidence that Jews sacrifice Christian children in blasphemous ceremonies. To save them from the rioting mob, the king places the Cambridge Jews under his protection and hides them in a castle fortress. King Henry II is no friend of the Jews — or anyone, really — but he is invested in their fate. Without the taxes received from Jewish merchants, his treasuries would go bankrupt. Hoping scientific investigation will exonerate the Jews, Henry calls on his cousin the King of Sicily — whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe — and asks for his finest “master of the art of death,” an early version of the medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno. But her name is Adelia — the king has been sent a mistress of the art of death.
Adelia and her companions — Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor — travel to England to unravel the mystery of the Cambridge murders, which turn out to be the work of a serial killer, most likely one who has been on Crusade with the king. In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia must conceal her true identity as a doctor in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she is assisted by Sir Rowley Picot, one of the king’s tax collectors, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. Rowley may be a needed friend, or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia’s investigation takes her into Cambridge’s shadowy river paths and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again… (publisher’s blurb)
Medieval Europe — especially medieval England — fascinates me. It’s almost a given I’ll like any novel set in that milieu. That being said, this is an exceptional story with an exceptional heroine.
Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the adopted daughter of a prominent Jew in Salerno. Having decided at an early age she was not meant for marriage, and so indulged by her family, she devoted herself to the medical arts, specifically the art of forensic autopsy. Upon being sent to England at the request of her King, she and her companions join a train of other travelers on their way to Cambridge — a train which contains an ailing Prior Geoffrey, who subsequently reaps the benefits of Adelia’s medical knowledge, albeit in such an embarrassing fashion he goes along with the conceit that her Moorish companion Mansur is the doctor who treated him. This aid to Prior Geoffrey, however, provides a small measure of protection and oversight to the foreign trio upon arrival in Cambridge, as they step on toes and break class boundaries in their quest to uncover the truth of the children’s ghastly deaths.
And ghastly they are. The clues on the bodies and the manner of their deaths lead Adelia and her companions to a specific local geographical feature, but it’s a dead end. Thus frustrated in their efforts, Adelia and Mansur more or less set up shop as a physician and his assistant while Simon — who, although Jewish, has an easier time asking questions and acquiring information — mingles with the community and pursues the investigation. Then Simon turns up dead. And Adelia and Mansur are no longer even relatively safe.
Franklin has created some lovely memorable characters in Adelia and her companions, as well as in the townsfolk: Ulf, the young boy who steals his way into Adelia’s affections; Gyltha, his grandmother, hired to cook and care for the trio in their rented accommodation; Prior Geoffrey, alternately bemused and bewildered by Adelia’s uncommon and forthright manner; Rowley Picot, tax collector, king’s man, suspect, and thorn in Adelia’s side. Lots of period detail, an amazing depth of research, and stellar writing make for a wonderful medieval whodunnit.
I already have the second book in this series, and intend to purchase volumes three and four. I had hoped it would continue for many many years, like Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, but sadly Ms. Franklin passed away in January 2011.