Friday, December 11, 2020

Murder in the Marshes

It’s a curious experience to encounter a novel series just as it’s coming to an end. In a sense, it’s like attending a party where everyone but you knows one another well. Personalities are already established, relationships developed, and there is a certain comfort among the principals that an outsider finds intriguing, filled with possibilities and hints at past events.

This is what it was like for me to read Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman’s Death and the Maiden, fifth in a five-part mystery series set in Norman England. Eleanor of Acquitaine, a long-time favorite of mine and apparently a vital part of the series as a whole, makes an appearance. Otherwise (I suspect this may not be true of earlier books), the characters are primarily fictional.

Adelia Aguilar, the Mistress of the Art of Death whose title gives the series its name, has retired to the country after the death of her patron King Henry II and is training her daughter Almeison, known as Allie, in the medical and forensic skills that earned Adelia her fame. The two of them have just received a visit from Allie’s father, Sir Rowley, whom Adelia long ago refused to marry, when a message comes from the Fenlands that an old friend is dying. But Adelia has injured her ankle and can’t ride, or even walk, so she sends Allie instead.

Escorted by the formidable Lady Penda, who goes about clad in a wolfskin cloak and armed with a crossbow, Allie reaches the Fens and treats the dying friend, Gyltha. But Gyltha, although grateful, makes no bones about wanting Allie out of the Fen country as fast as possible. Rumors of missing girls receive horrifying confirmation when a young woman’s body surfaces in the marshes. As a result of investigation, Allie concludes that the victim, Martha, didn’t die of drowning but was killed—and quite recently, although Martha went missing months before. The hunt for the murderer is on.

Several features of this novel appealed to me enough to make me want to seek out earlier books in the series. Mystery novels often rely excessively on the cleverness of their plots at the expense of the characters, but—as with Jennifer Ashley’s Death below Stairs series—that’s not true here. Much of the novel, in fact, has more to do with the characters’ everyday lives and interactions than with the murder per se—even though the mystery is an intrinsic part of the whole. Allie attends parties at nearby homes; she’s courted by a local lord; she endures crossbow lessons from Lady Penda. As readers, we get a clear sense of the time period, with all its distinctive traits and contradictions. We encounter women who, even in the misogynistic culture that is medieval Europe, remain credibly educated and competent and strong in their own defense and the defense of others. And although I was never quite clear what specifically motivated the murderer to kill (the thrill of wielding ultimate power, perhaps), the discovery not only made sense in a satisfying way but took place without any of the standard tropes (heroine runs alone and heedless into an isolated setting at midnight and—surprise!—encounters the killer, brilliant detective lays out the case against one person after another until the culprit cracks and admits the truth, etc.).

For me personally, the international nature of the story also acts as a powerful and pleasing reminder that, even in 1191, the parts of Europe were not isolated from one another. Adelia grew up in Spain and trained in Salerno; she was accompanied and protected for years by Mansur, an Arab doctor (from Granada? I have to read the earlier books to find out) who also seems to have acted as Allie’s substitute father during Sir Rowley’s frequent absences; Eleanor of Acquitaine, of course, came from southern France; Crusaders not long returned from the Middle East abound—one with a horse not unlike Firuza's beautiful Turkmen palomino (The Winged Horse; Song of the Shaman). This is not my steppe world, by any means, but it exhibits some of the same complexity and cultural diversity.

One last note: this book has two authors because Ariana Franklin, who developed the series, died before she could complete it, and her daughter took over and brought it to a close. I find this a truly impressive achievement, as well as a wonderful tribute. The writing is seamless, and the main theme of the novel—Allie’s emergence as a medical and forensic authority in her own right—aptly echoes the reality in its authors’ lives. If, like me, you hadn’t encountered these books before, they are well worth investigating. You can even start at the end, although it’s undoubtedly better to begin at the beginning. Either way, I think you won’t be disappointed.

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