In Cambridge circa 1171, the Jewish community delivers considerable revenue to the court of Henry II, yet they remain the scapegoats of a superstition-riddled population who point the finger of guilt at every opportunity. After a brutal child murder, the small body hideously defiled, the townspeople immediately take up the hue and cry, the local Jews an easy target for their rage and fear.
Pursued to Cambridge Castle, the Jews seek refuge from their tormentors. As one unlucky couple is torn apart, the others find temporary sanctuary. Supposed witnesses claim the child was crucified in a Jewish home, adding fuel to an already incendiary situation.
Bemoaning the loss of income from his Jews, Henry requests an adept “in the art of death” from the King of Sicily, the medieval answer to modern-day forensic science. Embarking from Salerno, physician Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is accompanied by Simon the Jew, their putative leader, and Mansur, a giant Saracen castrato who serves as bodyguard. Deferring to Mansur as “the doctor,” Adelia is not allowed the honor of her title.
The unlikely group enters the city with a number of other travelers: a prioress, a few canons, and a number of returning Crusaders, as well as the king’s tax collector, who exhibits an irritating interest in Adelia’s talents as a healer. The newcomers attempt to remain unobtrusive; the jovial nature of the group is deceptive, a murderer in their midst: “One of them, exuberant as the rest, is a child killer.”
Adelia manages to examine the body of the murdered child, now encased in a jewel-encrusted reliquary, “the little saint” the centerpiece of St. Radegund’s Convent. Although it is impossible for the Jews to have committed these crimes, when three more butchered children are discovered, the villagers cling to their belief that they are harboring the child killers in Cambridge Castle.
Against growing hysteria, Adelia conducts a secret investigation with no shortage of suspects, from knights to monks to the tax collector, Sir Rowley Picot, who irritates the physician with his very presence. When Rowley offers invaluable aid with the daunting task she faces, Adelia’s suspicion gives way to admiration and more.
There is danger everywhere, for Adelia and anyone close to her - in particular, young Ulf, a servant’s sly grandson, perceptive and observant beyond his years. Adelia finds her way to the killer with Ulf’s help, their lives in jeopardy. Woman and boy believe the key is the river, but who is so trusted that the children will follow, even unto their deaths?
This richly atmospheric medieval novel portrays the era’s rampant superstition, the self-serving interference of religious fanatics and the value of physical science, served up with a cast of villains, canons, nuns, noble souls and a blood-thirsty murderer. The perceptive Henry II steps in to right incipient wrongs, wielding justice in service of the innocent, only to be excoriated by history for the infamous murder of Thomas a Becket.