If it sometimes seems as if civilization is hurtling back into the Middle Ages, any number of medieval mysteries will obligingly corroborate your worst fears. Few historical novelists can match the literary panache and apocalyptic vision of Peter Ackroyd, whose treatment of 14th-century political intrigue in “The Clerkenwell Tales” transforms Chaucer’s Canterbury into a training camp for bomb-throwing terrorists. But even writers who work within the limits of a series manage to cover all the major paranoia points: religious superstition (P. C. Doherty’s “Hangman’s Hymn”); civil rebellion (Margaret Frazer’s “Traitor’s Tale”); barbaric medical practices (Philippa Morgan’s “Chaucer and the Doctor of Physic”); rotten government (Sharon Kay Penman’s “Prince of Darkness”); a corrupt clergy (Priscilla Royal’s “Tyrant of the Mind”); and endless foreign wars (Michael Jecks’s “Last Templar”). Not to mention plague, pestilence and appalling sanitary conditions — all of which are handled with saintly compassion in Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael series.
Ariana Franklin enters the medieval lists with MISTRESS OF THE ART OF DEATH (Putnam, $25.95), a morbidly entertaining novel that outdoes the competition in depicting the perversities of human cruelty. Although she’s not one to sacrifice the sordid details of a story about the sexual torture and murder of children in 12th-century Canterbury, Franklin makes a good case for restoring the reputation of Henry II, the Plantagenet king of England who went down in infamy for rashly ordering the murder of Thomas à Becket. Franklin contends that Henry should better be remembered for ending civil war, protecting the Jews from religious persecution and establishing trial by jury under the revolutionary legal system of common law.
These are the structural bones of a vigorously told narrative in which King Henry petitions the progressive school of medicine in Salerno for a “doctor to the dead” (a trained medical examiner) to determine who is mutilating local children. What he gets is Adelia Aguilar, a doctor whose independent mind and arrogant manner are as unorthodox as her profession. Adelia is a delight and her spirited efforts to stop the killings, while tending to the sick, making friends and finding romance, add to our appreciation of her forensic skills. But the lonely figure who truly stands out in Franklin’s vibrant tapestry of medieval life is King Henry — an enlightened monarch condemned to live in dark times.
Readers who become attached to series detectives often clamor to know more (more! more!) about their private lives and personal relationships. But when authors are forthcoming about these intimate details they don’t necessarily do their heroes a professional service. John Cardinal, the sensitive Canadian detective in an outstanding police procedural series by Giles Blunt, is a case in point. Cardinal is wild with grief in BY THE TIME YOU READ THIS (Holt, $19.95) when his manic-depressive wife commits suicide, and while Blunt devises an ingenious plot around Cardinal’s suspicion that she was murdered, the story is primarily about his suffering and the terrible psychic pain of other suicidal characters in the story. If inconsolable grief is what you want to read about, be assured that Blunt depicts it with gravity and depth, setting it against the aching beauty of Algonquin Bay, Ontario, in the melancholy days of autumn. But Cardinal’s procedural work is careless, and his frantic efforts to unmask a homicidal maniac link awkwardly to a child-pornography investigation more professionally handled by his partner, Lise Delorme. She’s a character of substance, although the warmth of her feelings for Cardinal makes you wonder if she might be up for some of Blunt’s extreme emotional exposition in a future book.
S. J. Rozan’s novels have great bones — literally. As a former architect, this New York author writes with such intensity of the internal structure of the city that the very buildings become distinct characters in a larger drama. Even “Absent Friends,” her response to the human loss in the destruction of the World Trade Center, contained a subtle lament for the twin towers themselves. IN THIS RAIN (Delacorte, $24) finds her bristling with anger at the greed and corruption at the heart of the city’s mammoth construction industry. After three on-site accidents at a New York housing project, Ann Montgomery, an investigator for the city, takes her suspicions to her former partner, Joe Cole, who was unfairly imprisoned in an old bribery scandal, and persuades him to swallow his bitterness and help her out. Although the plot moves in a predictable direction when it turns out that the developer has connections to City Hall, the narrative goes beyond back-room politics in its argument that dishonesty in the building trade is a crime against the soul of the city. The way Rozan tells it, she has you weeping for the violated buildings.
Every now and then, it behooves us all to read a book with no redeeming social value whatsoever — something like HURRICANE PUNCH (Morrow/HarperCollins, $24.95), the latest in a screwball series by Tim Dorsey featuring Serge A. Storms, a Florida serial killer who loves the tacky regional aesthetic and juices up by riding out hurricanes. Serge is off his meds and in his demented glory here, with his perpetually wasted friend Coleman by his side, his latest victim (a guy who dissed him at a traffic stop) in the trunk of his car and six hurricanes due to make landfall. But Serge does have his principles (“People need to be killed, but not randomly”), and he’s offended by the low standards of a competitive psychopath and outraged by the trashy press coverage of both the killings and the killer storms. The novel’s hilarious media clips do indeed stir homicidal impulses, so let’s not judge Serge too harshly.