Nancy Bilyeau gets historical

imgresNancy Bilyeau is the author of two historical thrillers: The Crown and The Chalice, out now from Orion Books. In our blog this week she writes about fellow historical crime novelist Ariana Franklin, and how it feels to discover that characters you have learned to love have become bereft of their author.

I read the four twelfth-century crime novels of Ariana Franklin with great pleasure. By the time I’d begun the series, the adventures of her proto-coroner, the redoubtable Adelia – full name Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar, trained in medicine in Sicily – were finished for ever.  There would be no more ‘listening’ to the bones of the dead, or tracking down murderers while arguing with the like of King Henry II. But I didn’t know that until it was too late.

‘Have you read Mistress of the Art of Death?’ my agent asked me a month before the winter 2012 publication of my debut novel, The Crown.  ‘People might compare your book to hers, so you need to be aware.’

I hadn’t read Franklin’s books, but I was very much aware of them. I was impressed – even intimidated – by her first novel’s artfully ominous title and by its cover. Out of the darkness, a young woman leans, thoughtfully, her fingers laced in concentration, on a smooth, beige human skull.

Because of the frenzy of publication and the demands of my magazine-editing job and my two children, I did not read Mistress of the Art of Death until a few months ago. I was experiencing a welcome lull and felt that hunger to discover something – or someone.

Mistress of the Art of Death begins with a description of a Chaucer-like journey and a horrific murder. One of the first things to know about Ariana Franklin is she doesn’t write nice historical ‘cosies’. Death is brutal, dark, terrifying, graphic. The story, written in the third person, shifted to Sicily after the first murder. The prose impressed me – ‘The deer ran, scattering among the trees, their white scuts like dominoes tumbling into the darkness’ – but I held back a little. I didn’t have a main character to hang onto yet. Where was this going?

And then she arrived: brilliant, resourceful, arrogant, impatient, cynical, graceless, loyal and obsessive Adelia. I fell in love with this character in a way you always hope to with a new book. Before I was halfway through with Mistress of the Art of Death, I’d ordered the next three on my e-reader: The Serpent’s Tale, Grave Goods and A Murderous Procession. The last one was written in 2010, so I was signing on with an evolving series. Excellent.

While reading The Serpent’s Tale and Grave Goods, I found myself enjoying the prose style, the suspense of the mysteries, while indulging in a little good-natured imaginary debate with Ariana Franklin. ‘Do you really think Rosamund Clifford could have been obese?’ I muttered in The Serpent’s Tale. And: ‘Do you always have to be so hard on the monastics?’ in Grave Goods.

Before beginning A Murderous Procession, I checked Franklin’s author website to find out when the next one was scheduled for publication. I looked forward to spending more time with Adelia and her unforgettable circle: her on-off lover the bishop, her homely and shrewd servant with an irrepressible grandson, her brave Arabic eunuch colleague, her animal-obsessed illegitimate daughter.

But then I read this sentence: ‘The Putnam and Berkley family are saddened to announce the passing of Diana Norman, who wrote ‘The Mistress of the Art of Death’ novels under the pseudonym Ariana Franklin. We truly appreciated her talent as a writer and were greatly honored to publish her books.’

Depressed, I began the last novel, A Murderous Procession. This story sent Adelia back to Sicily on a hazardous journey, separated her from her child, and put her in more sustained danger than in any other book. We the readers knew from the outset that a sadistic criminal had joined the procession in disguise, one with a grudge against Adelia and a longing to kill her. My chest tightened with painful tension as I followed Adelia’s struggle. At times I almost couldn’t bear it. I felt like I was mourning the character, the coroner who asked forgiveness of the dead before probing their corpses for secrets.

At the end of A Murderous Procession, an important character is on the verge of death, a new character presents different emotional possibilities and Adelia faces another risky journey, this time back to England. Ariana Franklin hadn’t written a cliffhanger ending with the other three books.  But she did it here, the book that was published the year before she died.

After finishing the mysteries, I’m left with a mystery. I sought out articles written about Diana Norman’s life; they made me smile a little. We do have things in common besides setting thriller plots in centuries gone by. She worked as a journalist, had to make sacrifices to balance work with family and at a few junctures did not have a lot of money.

How much I would have loved to meet Diana Norman. We’d have had so many things to talk about, including the question that now has no answer: What does the future hold for Adelia?