G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009; 337 pages
From the publisher's description:
England, 1176. Beautiful, tranquil Glastonbury Abbey – one of England’s holiest sites, and believed by some to be King Arthur’s sacred Isle of Avalon – has been burned almost to the ground. The arsonist remains at large, but the fire has uncovered something even more shocking: two hidden skeletons, a man and a woman. The skeletons’ height and age send rumors flying – are the remains those of Arthur and Guinevere?
King Henry II hopes so. Struggling to put down a rebellion in Wales, where the legend of Celtic savior Arthur is particularly strong, Henry wants definitive proof that the bones are Arthur’s. If the rebels are sure that the Once and Future King will not be coming to their aid, Henry can stamp out the insurgence for good. He calls on Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Art of Death, to examine the bones.
Henry’s summons comes not a moment too soon, for Adelia has worn out her welcome in Cambridge. As word of her healing powers has spread, so have rumors of witchcraft. So Adelia and her household ride to Glastonbury, where the investigation into the abbey fire will be overseen by the Church authorities – in this case, the Bishop of St. Albans, who happens also to be the father of Adelia’s daughter.
Grave Goods is the third book in the Mistress of the Art of Death series by British author and journalist Diana Norman, writing under her Ariana Franklin pseudonym; it was published in Britain as Relics of the Dead. (Not sure why they changed the title for the American market – it seems to me that Relics of the Dead is a much neater and more descriptive title.) But when I saw the book in the library, it reached out and grabbed me, and I had to take it home and read it, even though I hadn't read any of the earlier novels in the series. I worried about that at first, but once I got into the story I didn't really have any trouble figuring out relationships and the histories of the various characters.
And there are quite a roster of characters, both new and returning from the earlier novels, including Adelia's young daughter Allie; Gyltha, Adelia's faithful companion and Allie's nurse; Adelia's friend, the aristocratic Emma, Lady Wolvercote, the subject of the book's main subplot; and Mansur, the Muslim protector who also masquerades as Adelia's "employer," so that she can pursue her investigations without being accused of witchcraft. Then there are the monks and townspeople living in and around the Abbey, as well as a band of nasty ruffians led by the sadistic Wolf – a sort of evil twin version of Robin Hood and his merry men. Oh, and King Henry is a character, too.
So there's a lot going on, but Franklin handles it all very adroitly. And it's obvious she's done a great deal of homework on the period. She's always coming up with obscure historical tidbits like this one:
Rabbits were comparatively new to England, having been introduced by Norman lords for their fur and meat, but, thanks to the escapees from the warrens in which they were kept, they were rapidly becoming a pest to gardeners everywhere. [p. 161]And Adelia is quite an attractive character – intelligent, quick-witted, and spunky. You do have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to accept the idea of a woman trained as a physician, and functioning as a forensic investigator for the crown, in 12th Century England – even if that woman was educated in the distant (and presumably more advanced) city of Salerno. And every now and then, the story takes on an almost science fiction feel, even for readers like myself who are willing to accept just about anything for a good read. Such as:
They laid him on the sweetgrass. He wasn't breathing. Adelia fell on him, picking soil from his nostrils. She cleared his mouth and then puffed her own breath into it. [p. 137]Mouth-to-mouth in 1176? Well, maybe, but I have my doubts.
However, taken altogether, it's a ripping good yarn – well written, with engaging characters, and plenty of suspense, local color, and humor along the way. And when the mystery is finally solved, the answer is one I really didn't see coming, which is always something I appreciate. I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good whodunit, and I'm looking forward to going back and starting the series at the beginning – as I should have done in the first place!