Adelia Aguilar’s relationships are nothing if not complicated. She’s in love with the father of her daughter, but he’s a bishop and she can’t stomach being his “kept woman,” so they keep their distance (except when their passion overflows and they can’t remain apart). She adores the medical profession but must keep her expertise under wraps, posing as the translator for her Arabic-speaking companion, the eunuch Mansur, whom (almost) everyone else believes is the real doctor. And she is loyal to Henry II, King of England, her employer and benefactor --- but he also drives her crazy.
Take the opening of A MURDEROUS PROCESSION, for example. At the beginning of this fourth mystery starring Adelia, our heroine is informed that she will be allowed, even encouraged, to return to her native Sicily for the first time since moving to England to serve the King. But she’ll have to leave her beloved daughter behind as an assurance that she will return to England and not simply relocate back to Europe. Bitter and resentful at leaving her young child, Adelia nevertheless agrees to act as the king’s daughter’s private physician, accompanying her to her marriage in Europe. After all, what choice does she have?
At least she will be accompanied on the trip by her good friend, Mansur (of course), and her lover, Bishop Rowley. She’ll also be joined by their young friend, Ulf, who has his own top-secret mission --- he’s been entrusted to secretly carry a sword rumored to be King Arthur’s Excalibur as a gift to the bridegroom. Hidden inside a crucifix, the fabled sword would certainly be a prize for any of the many bandits and thieves who haunt the highways and byways traveled by the princess’s entourage.
Little do the travelers know, however, that there is an even more diabolical presence traveling among them in secret, an almost-forgotten nemesis who is now bent on destroying Adelia one way or another. Out of vengeance and pure malice, this shadowy figure stalks Adelia, gradually turning her fellow travelers against her and making her the prime suspect in a number of mysterious deaths that mount up as the miles pass.
A MURDEROUS PROCESSION is perhaps not the most suspenseful of Ariana Franklin’s superb Mistress of the Art of Death novels --- astute readers will discern the true murderer very early on --- but it is certainly a worthy continuation of what has become a “must-read” series for historical mystery fans. Adelia continues to exhibit a powerful blend of capability and vulnerability, and the interactions among various classes and cultures on the roads through Europe offer plenty of opportunities for both humor and genuine insight into medieval mores.
And, to top it all off, A MURDEROUS PROCESSION is the most romantic of Franklin’s novels to date, complete with a devastating closing that will leave readers both sighing in satisfaction and gasping in anticipation of what might come next.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 7, 2011