A circuitous tale

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Ariana Franklin: The Death Maze
(published as The Serpent’s Tale in the US)
Bantam Books 2008

With a first name reminiscent of Ariadne it’s hardly surprising that the author penned a novel about a labyrinth, nor that the figure at the centre of intricate paths should sit there like a bloated spider (aranea is Latin for this arthropod). As is appropriate for a medieval whodunit Franklin’s novel ensnares characters and readers in a web of lies and false leads as it draws towards its close and the final trap.

Based on a popular medieval legend, The Death Maze is set in the late 12th century and involves Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford. She was said to have been housed in a labyrinth at Woodstock, where reputedly she was poisoned on the orders of Queen Eleanor (herself captive in France) and later buried at the nearby nunnery of Godstow.

Franklin takes the bare bones of this story and weaves a circuitous tale of detection and deceit around and through it. But our principal concern is not for Fair Rosamund (not as fair as we might think) but for Adelia Aguilar, a Sicilian anatomist who is drawn against her will into investigating the crime for the King himself.

Fair Rosamund by D G Rossetti (Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff)

Adelia featured in an earlier novel, Mistress of the Art of Death (2007), but this novel supplies all the reader needs to know about our protagonist. The reluctant sleuth, accompanied by an older woman from the fens and an Marsh Arab who happens to be a castrato, and further encumbered by her much-loved young child, is dragged willy-nilly from Cambridgeshire to Oxfordshire by her former lover, now a Bishop, to attend to the poisoned Rosamund. They arrive, having struggled through a winter snowstorm, but too late: the king’s mistress is dead. Who has ordered her killing? And who is the assassin?

I did enjoy this historical romp, even though it plays hard and fast with historical facts, such as Eleanor escaping imprisonment to view the corpse of Rosamund (who died in 1176). Much of the action takes place either at Godstow, where Rosamund was later buried, or in the grounds of Woodstock at the fictitious Wormhold Tower, part of what would later be rebuilt as Blenheim Palace. The author makes the bitter winter a player in the action, having Eleanor, mercenaries, nuns, estate workers and Adelia’s group all imprisoned by heavy storms and snowdrifts over Christmastide, with a murderer on the loose among them all.

For Adelia will have three cases to solve: the poisoning of Rosamund, the murder of a young heir about to elope with a local girl, and one of Rosamund’s servants. She has much to contend with as well as the bitter weather: suspicions that because of her forensic skills she might be a witch, plus an abbot’s enmity, threats to her daughter’s life, the violent propensity of the foreign mercenaries, a local noble’s misogyny, and the worrying disappearance of the father of her child.

After a slightly pedestrian start The Death Maze establishes and then maintains the sense of menace that such whodunits require. I found it easy to overlook linguistic anachronisms and other minor niggles in favour of a convoluted but gripping narrative.

How likely is the historicity of the novel’s central motif, the maze? In W H Matthews’ 1922 classic Mazes and Labyrinths the writer quotes the Chronicon of the Abbot of Jervaulx. Under the year 1151 the chronicle includes a mention of a ‘building of wondrous architecture in the likeness of a work by Daedalus’ ordered by the king to be constructed at Wodestoke, one which the estranged queen couldn’t easily seize. This ‘bower’ (as it was described by later generations) was according to Matthews more likely to be a timber structure, rather like another also built with ‘the skill of Daedalus’ in 12th-century France ‘containing recess within recess, room within room, turning within turning’ — a lodge, therefore, more than a topiary labyrinth.

The author however chooses to interpret Rosamund’s hideaway as a multicursal hedge maze; and as a symbol for an attempt to solve a mystery or conundrum it is of course ideal. Meanwhile at the centre of Franklin’s book is the inaccessible Wormhold Tower, the ‘dragon’s stronghold’: Adelia is not averse to pointing out the sexual symbolism of Henry’s phallic edifice amidst pubic foliage — a symbolism which the novel’s US title perhaps inadvertently emphasises — and it’s just one instance of the sleuth exhibiting an instinct for proto-feminism.

After all the false trails and secret identities in this fiction you won’t be too surprised to know that Ariana Franklin herself goes under a pseudonym: unlike with the assassin and his client, whose identities I’d suspected three-quarters of the way through, I’d no previous inkling that the author was actually one Diana Norman. As famous for being married to the late British film critic Barry Norman as for her novels, she went on to write two more books about Adelia before her death in 2011. I fully expect they’re as entertaining as The Death Maze.

Old Woodstock Palace, Oxfordshire (NMR Reference: CC50/00455)

8 thoughts on “A circuitous tale

  1. Now there’s something I’d never thought about before – when were topiary mazes first ‘invented’ and where? I wonder if there is a link with knot gardens? I foresee a massive distraction from my work…

    (And then there’s the image of the enclosed garden which was supposed to symbolise virginity, if I remember rightly? I wonder if that comes into it at all, considering the tower in the centre of the maze.)

    I read the first Adelia novel a few years ago and it was fun if yes you don’t mind anachronisms (I generally don’t but I’m quite ignorant anyway so probably missed loads) but the reason for the killings was so revolting I was rather put off reading further books. This sounds more my cup of tea…

    If I get a copy for my father and just happen to read it first, have I broken the resolution I made only yesterday not to buy any books for a long time?

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    1. Buying books for other people never counts, Helen, regardless of whether you have to check it out first because you’re concerned about the recipient’s expected sensitivities!

      The W H Matthews’ book I quoted (mine is a Dover reprint) makes great play of the interconnected links over time of topiary mazes, knot gardens, parterres, Paradise gardens, pavement labyrinths, turf mazes, prehistoric caves etc, as do all the authoritative reference books I’ve read through the years—I’ve been distracted with the subject for decades, unsurprisingly. Like their subject matter it’s all too easy to get lost in the twists and turns of it all!

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      1. I am completely satisfied with your answer re buying books for other people. However, now I have a slight problem because I do not think I can persuade my father to read the W.H. Matthews book. But perhaps I should buy it for him and then read it to find out either way….

        Other people, I have heard, possess something called ‘will power’.

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        1. Does he like illustrations? Tell him it’s full of pictures and diagrams, he doesn’t have to read the text. Is he practical? It gives advice on how to draw mazes in the sand, ideal for family holidays at the seaside, and descriptions of mazes you can trace with your fingers or mark out with mosaics or paving slabs. (I may have made the last bit up.)

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    1. Yes, indeed! https://www.goodreads.com/series/44043-mistress-of-the-art-of-death
      I seem to have been reading, or about to read, a fair amount of fiction set in Oxford: Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage last year, with his The Secret Commonwealth next, Masefield’s The Box of Delights (which borrows aspects of the Oxford environs where he lived the latter part of his life), obviously this novel, plus I was hoping to review another Oxford-based Gervase Fen novel soon.

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  2. I always learn so much from your posts, even when I’ve already read the book in question! I’m glad you enjoyed this one – I agree that Ariana Franklin’s books are quite gripping and entertaining, but I do find it a bit difficult to overlook the anachronisms and modern language.

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    1. Thanks, Helen. Language is a difficult one is historical fiction, isn’t it. If it isn’t too obviously modern slang I’m happy to see the author’s role as a ‘translator’; and when she gets a character like Gyltha to use a fenland vernacular that seems to work well. Anachronisms are a bit more tricky though!

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