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.
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.