DEATH COMES AS EPIPHANY
Reviewed by Sue Feder
At just about the same time Brother Cadfael was meeting Olivier, Abbess Heloise in France discovers that someone is trying to destroy her and the convent founded by her lover, Peter Abelard. A scholarly novice is dispatched into the "real world" on an undercover mission to learn the nature of the forgeries inserted into a psalter made at the convent which have lead to charges of heresy against Abelard.
Young Catherine's mission is complicated by the murder of an old friend, the religious ravings of her insane mother, an encounter with a thoroughly evil hermit, the disturbing secrets of beloved family members, and the distracting appearances of a young stonemason who is more than what he seems.
Catherine is a brilliantly rendered -- learned, willful, funny, beautiful and determined. Each of the other characters -- most notably her father Hubert, uncle Roger, sister-in-law Marie, and the delightfully bemused stonemason Edgar -- are wrought with a similarly skilled and loving hand.
Newman's vision of medieval days eschews the muck and mire of P.C. oherty's, but is harder-edged than Ellis Peters'. Like Peters, she is very much aware of the influence of the Church on every aspect of life. She is also closer to the medieval mind's belief in the living God and demons, yet her Catherine's mind is as logical and rational as any well-educated person's would have been. She believes and questions all in the same moment.
She believes in the stonemason by faith alone; she refuses to question others much closer to her despite mounting evidence of terrible secrets; she readily accepts the proper authority of a gilt-and-glory lusting abbot simply because he is the abbot; and yet she distrusts everyone. She asks God to prove Himself, yet puts herself repeatedly into His hands, or the hands of His saints, for survival and success.
Were all the "new Agatha Christies" to gather in one place they'd fill the Superbowl stadium, but rest assured that fans of medieval mysteries have found, if not the next Ellis Peters, the new writer to turn to after finishing Peters' latest. This is hands-down the best book I've read this year.
THE DEVIL'S DOOR
Reviewed by Sue Feder
Young Catherine LeVendeur is back at the Convent of the Paraclete after her adventures in Death Comes as Epiphany, thinking some less than pure thoughts as she awaits the return of Edgar of Wedderlie, whom she plans to marry assuming her father gives his permission, and assuming Edgar hasn't changed his mind. In the meantime she is a woman without a home, not fully part of the convent life, not yet out in the world.
The world comes to her and her sisters, though, in the form of a brutally beaten woman. Almost more horrifying to Catherine than the new and fatal wounds are the healed scars which show that she had been routinely beaten throughout much of her life. When the Countess' death calls into question the validity of her bequest to the abbey of a seemingly worthless tract of land, Abbess Héloïse delegates Catherine to find out why. Catherine quickly becomes convinced that the land issue is somehow connected with the death.
The story is filled with people who are not sure in which world they reside -- most especially Catherine, caught between the eassuring stability of the convent and the excitement and passion of the secular world with Edgar; strangely pulled by both her own faith and the faith of her father's family; even caught between the world of the living and that of the dead, where her mad mother believes her to be. Lay sister Paciana too, with her surprising relationship to the Countess, is believed to be dead by most of the world outside the abbey, and may be little better than dead to herself.
And then there are the lovers: starcrossed, doomed or defeated, including that most famous pair Héloïse and Abelard. Against them stands out the young, vital and lusty love of Catherine and Edgar.
At the very heart of the story are the terrible, blasphemous secrets which haunt the dead woman and her traditionally orthodox family contrasting sharply against the so-called heresy of Abelard, who would do nothing more than give people a sound basis for faith and belief. As love and hate, belief and blasphemy, life and death continue to play against each other, Catherine and company continue to sparkle with intelligence, wit and compassion. History, philosophy, religion, socioculture, murder and mayhem combined with a sharply defined sense of time and place, original characters and a magnificently medieval plot -- there is little else one can ask for in a book.
THE WANDERING ARM
Reviewed by Sue Feder
While on one side of the English Channel, Brother Cadfael and company wait patiently for Stephen and Maud to settle their differences, on the other side Catherine LeVendeur, her husband Edgar, and her most unusual family resolve issues of prejudice and family ties while investigating a murder and the mysterious disappearance of some bones which may precipitate grievous harm to the local Jewish community. The Wandering Arm is another complex medieval story blending history and mystery, religion and politics, pride and prejudice in an immensely satisfying way. Most of all it is the story of love and family, the expectations people have of these institutions, and the results when those expectations go unfulfilled.
CURSED IN THE BLOOD
Reviewed by Sue Feder
In the most obvious and straightforward sense the fifth story of Catherine LeVendeur and her husband Edgar is mostly Edgar's story, as he returns to his birthplace in Scotland (the briefest sample of Ms. Newman's ever-present wit finds Catherine's young helper observing, upon arriving in Edgar's home town, "Mistress … I don't think we're in Paris any more.") and his long estranged family to learn who murdered his two older brothers and a nephew, and why. It is the "why" which may determine whether Edgar, Catherine and their infant son James are also in danger.
In the larger sense, though, this is really a tale about duty, honor, family and the healing power of love as fortunes -- and even lives -- turn on the extent of commitment to these virtues.
One aspect of this series that I find thoroughly fascinating is the seamless integration of the status of Jews in medieval society. In the decades after the First Crusade, Jews became ever more important as traders as their ability to own land was increasingly restricted. We see in the relationship between Catherine, the devoutly Catholic daughter of a Converso, and her equally devoutly Jewish cousin the best of the Christian-Jewish relationship in microcosm -- warm, respectful, and eternally hoping that the other will eventually see the error of his way. At worst, Christian families were at risk for mere rumor of undue familiarity with Jews, while Jews often had to uproot their lives simply because of minor shifts in the political wind. So tenuous could their situation become that they sometimes had to go to unusual lengths to safely identify themselves to each other.
Solomon … caught one of the men at the other end of the bench looking at him. The man was fair and well built.… muscular.… he seemed a good man to avoid. So he was more than a little alarmed when he got up to relieve himself and found the man following him. Solomon wandered down to the beach, thinking to add his bit to the salt sea. The man came and stood next to him, untying his brais and lifting his tunic. Solomon began to panic. He hadn't had to deal with anything like this for years.… He tried to move away from the golden arc the man was sending into the water. He meant to avert his eyes, as well, but happened to glance down. His heart stopped.
The man was circumcised.
[H]e grinned at Solomon. "It seemed the best way to convince you quickly that I was a brother."
Although the climax of the story comes as a stunning surprise (one which Ms. Newman herself admitted that she hadn't planned, but realized had to happen), we are once again presented with an appealing portrait of the mid-twelfth century, painted with warmth, humor and love.
(This book was the winner of the 1998 Herodotus Award for Best US Historical Mystery.)
THE DIFFICULT SAINT
Reviewed by Sue Feder
Catherine LeVendeur's life is nearly perfect. She has a husband who adores her, two delightful children, and a close and loving relationship with her father, born a Jew and still bearing close ties to his childhood religion despite the rampant anti-Semitism of twelfth century France. The major flaw in Catherine's life is the fact that her sister Agnes, ashamed and angry over her father's refusal to fully repudiate his past, refuses to have anything to do with the rest of the family. So desperate is Agnes to remove herself from her family's heretical acceptance of their Jewish roots that she agrees to marry a wealthy German wine merchant and to move permanently to Trier, Germany. Her new husband, however, has heretical notions of his own, and within a few weeks he is dead. Agnes stands accused of the crime. Despite her rejection of them, the rest of the family flies to her side to find the real killer.
This latest entry into the LeVendeur series is leisurely paced, more of an exploration of the political and religious climate of France and Germany on the eve of the Second Crusade than it is a mystery. It draws effective parallels between the stories of an ancient Christian heresy making a new appearance, and the ancient hatred for all things Jewish. Catherine and her family, especially her tormented father, are outstanding characters in whom one wholly believes. Plot-oriented readers, though, may grow uncomfortable at the fairly slow pace of the mystery, which is not as thoroughly developed as past offerings. I personally find this background particularly fascinating, little addressed elsewhere in historical mystery fiction, and recommend this book despite the relatively slender mystery.
TO WEAR THE WHITE CLOAK
Reviewed by Sue Feder
Catherine and Edgar find a dead man in their long closed-up house.
Catherine's father has left to reclaim his Jewish heritage.
A young couple comes to Paris to look for someone.
A pair of men plan to go on Crusade with King Louis.
An old enemy of Catherine is determined to make trouble.
Given Newman's deft handling of the long list of characters who each have both a mission and a secret, I am reminded of the time- honored big and small screen formula of closing doors -- that is, one person disappears through a closing door just as another enters the room and, had each but known the other was there, the whole show would have been given away. It has been used successfully for decades in mysteries, horror, romance, and comedy -- and one can argue that in some sense Newman's latest Catherine LeVendeur novel combines all of these elements.
Newman weaves her multiple characters together with murder, suspicion, faith, the politics of religion, and normal daily life -- or at least as normal as daily life gets around Catherine and her growing family.
In an occasionally grim, but generally good-hearted way, Newman explores both the broad vistas and hidden corners of twelfth-century France. Her strengths -- wonderful characters and detailed recreations of life and thought during the period -- grow with each entry in this series.