"Medieval England -- a Hideous Murder -- Enter the first female anatomist", proclaims the cover. I must admit that when my daughter gave this to me to read, I didn't fancy it at all. Although a great reader of crime novels, I prefer them to be set in the present day, or at least the twentieth century, though I occasionally stretch a point for a cod-Victorian. But being assured that it was really good, I thought I might as well give it a try. And what a pleasant surprise it was.
This novel is actually set in 1171, so hardly more than a hundred years after 1066. The country (and most of France too) is ruled by Henry II, a surprisingly open-minded and cosmopolitan sort of man who seems to rule the country wisely, and allows the Jews to live freely in the cities. But, as the novel begins, his protection for these much mistrusted people is being strained hard, as a series of dreadful child murders have taken place in Cambridge and the Jews are being persecuted as the most obvious suspects. Determined to vindicate them, Henry has sent for a team of people from Italy: the Jewish lawyer Simon of Naples, the Saracen Mansur, and a doctor of physic, who specialises in analysing the bodies of the dead. The only problem is, that doctor is a woman, trained in Salerno, where women are allowed to practice as physicians, something completely unheard of in England. Adelia Aguilar is highly skilled, and proves it by performing a delicate operation on Prior Geoffrey almost as soon as she has arrived in Cambridge, but she must hide her abilities from the world for fear of being accused of witchcraft, so Mansur must appear to be the doctor and Adelia as his assistant.
Though not generally a huge fan of the medieval period, I was completely won over by this novel, which manages to be as convincingly in period as anyone could wish for while never being offensively archaic. Everyone talks like normal human beings -- no "thees" and "thous" and "forsooths" here -- and while Cambridge is populated by monks, nuns, crusaders, and many humble townsfolk, they think and behave in ways that seem as recognisable today as they would have done in the 12th century. There are real historical figures here, including, of course, the King himself, but Adelia is a completely imaginary creation and a great one at that. Think Kay Scarpetta or Temperence Brennan transported back in time and you wouldn't be far wrong.
It wasn't till I'd finished reading the novel that I discovered that Ariana Franklin was in fact the late Diana Norman, wife of the celebrated journalist and film critic Barry Norman. She was indeed a historian, and a brilliant novelist into the bargain. I've got another of this series waiting to be read, and more to come -- and have just got a copy of her final novel, Winter Seige (finished after her death by her daughter) to review for Shiny New Books. So glad to have discovered her!