Englands King Henry II, needing experts to investigate the vicious deaths of four children in Cambridge, appeals to his cousin, the King of Sicily, to help solve the crimes. The local Jews have been accused of the murders, and Henry, needing the taxes he receives from Jewish merchants, wants them protected.
Chosen for the task are three from Southern Italy sent undercover as pilgrims - Adelia, a medically trained doctor, Simon, a brilliant Jewish investigator, and Mansur, a Muslim eunuch serving as Adelias protector. Women were allowed to practice in the Medical School of Salerno, Italy, and Adelia has been taught to help solve crimes by studying the bodies of the victims - thus the books title Mistress of the Art of Death.
This is an exciting read by an author with terrific writings skills. Adelia and Simons investigations bring them into dangers at evey turn as they try to track down a devilish murderer. Romance in the form of the kings tax collector, the ex-Crusader Sir Rowley Picot, add to Adelias stress as she worries about how marriage would thwart the use of her very special skills and, as important, her curious mind.
The book offers well researched period details not only about twelfth century England, but about the much more cosmopolitan city of Salerno and way of life of the crusaders in Outremer. The tenuous position of Jews in medieval society and Henry IIs struggles with the Church over the Thomas å Beckett affair are featured, as are the multiple restrictions placed on medieval women. And yet, Adelias sensibilities and liberal views on topics such as death, peace, marriage, and religion, just to name a few, seem out of place for a young woman of the twelfth century. The characters verbal exchanges also contain references and expressions clearly directed at the modern audience.
Contains a useful authors note about the storys true and fictional information. Note particularly Franklins rebuttal to the harsh judgment history has made of Henry II.