The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr: A review
Matthew Carr has written several nonfiction books on historical subjects, including the Inquisition and the purging of Muslims from Spain in the 16th century. Now he has written his first novel, also dealing with that subject.
The Devils of Cardona refer to the Moriscos who were Moors who were forced to convert to Christianity. But, as the book makes clear, they were not devils; they were just human beings trying to survive in the world and raise their families in peace. Peace, however, was in very short supply in the Spain of the 16th century.
It was the time of the Spanish Inquisition, which nobody expected. (Sorry, Monty Python fans. I couldn't resist.) The Inquisition saw heresy and conspiracies everywhere and the Moriscos were easy scapegoats. They were persecuted unmercifully.
The story here begins in 1584 when a priest in Aragon is murdered in his church. The church itself is desecrated with the walls defaced with Arabic words written in the priest's blood. The crime is blamed on Moriscos and the province's Inquisitor soon receives a letter that threatens to drive all Christians from the region by the same methods that were used to forceably convert the Moors. The letter is signed by someone who calls himself the Redeemer.
Bernardo Mendoza, whose Jewish ancestors also were forced to convert, is a veteran of the wars that expelled the Moors from Granada and is now a criminal judge in the city of Valladolid, an important role in the Catholic Spanish government. He is sent to Aragon to solve the priest's murder and bring his killer(s) to justice.
Mendoza takes with him his ward, a 17-year-old Moor whom he has raised as Christian, to serve as his scrivener and write his reports. Also in his entourage are his cousin Luis de Ventura, a professional soldier; Johannes Necker, a stern German constable; and two young soldiers who are to provide escort and protection.
When Mendoza arrives in the town of Belamar de la Sierra where the priest was killed, he learns pretty quickly that no one mourns the dead man. He was a corrupt and lecherous man who preyed on the women of his town and had earned the enmity of all the townspeople.
Mendoza also meets a greatly beloved local figure, the Countess of Cardona, who is a benevolent overlord to the region and is sympathetic to the Moriscos. He soon begins to suspect that the killing of the priest will not be a simple matter to unravel and, in that assumption, he is absolutely right.
I thought Matthew Carr did an excellent job of bringing the late 16th century to life. It was a savage and terror-filled time and he does not shrink from describing some of the tortures of the Inquisition in all their gory detail. I did shrink, however, from reading those descriptions and I admit I skipped over a few pages to get to the end result.
Many of the scenes are truly harrowing and hard to read about. Some of the vicious and sadistic inquisitors who presented themselves as God's judges on Earth do get their just rewards as the plot proceeds and it is difficult to feel any sympathy for their characters.
All in all, this first novel was a creditable effort, although the plotting of the mystery at the center of the story was less successful than the descriptions of society and the culture of 16th century Spain. The solution to the question of who was responsible for the priest's death and other atrocities in the area seemed fairly obvious early on. Moreover, the writer stretched our credulity with the number of coincidences that were necessary to wrap everything up in a neat denouement. But endings can be difficult, even for experienced novelists.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars