December 10, 2003

The Difficult Saint, by Sharan Newman

It's always difficult to come into a series midstream if the narratives are sequential and build upon each other. And this one is 5th or 6th in the series, something I didnít realize when I bought it or began to read it. Still, it held my attention and then piqued my curiosity enough that I went to the library and got a couple of the earlier books. They are buried somewhere in the bag set by my chair for my reading hour during the day.

The setting for this series is mid-12th-century France. Catherine Le Vendeur is a young matron and mother living with her husband in the home of her merchant father. Catherine was a novice nun in a convent at Paraclete under Heloise when sometime in the past she left the novitiate to marry her English husband, Edgar. And sometime in the past, she discovered that her father is actually a Jew converted at sword point to Christianity. Oh, and her mother is insane and cared for by nuns somewhere and her sister, Agnes, refuses to have anything to do with her or her apostate father. Oh, yes, and somehow, Edgar lost his forearm in a sword fight.

That's the background that I gleaned from this story, actually a murder mystery. Agnes, her sister, up and comes to Paris demanding her share of her mother's jewels as dowry since she is marrying a count somewhere in a German state. And after a couple weeks of marriage, her new husband dies mysteriously and Agnes stands accused of witchcraft for causing his death. Catherine can't just let her sister either rot in prison or be killed as a witch so she and her husband and a Jewish merchant partner of her father's make the journey to Germany under the auspices of a trade mission and hopefully while there prove her innocence. Catherine discovers that the marriage is unconsummated and that the count and someone else in the household may have been involved in some odd ball ascetic cult of some sort. And that may have been what caused his death.

For a historical mystery, Newman does very well. Giving Catherine a converted Jew as a father gives her a twist that allows her to pick out bits about the plight of medieval Jews in Europe. The supporting Jewish characters are nearly as interesting as Catherine and her family. Now I have to go back and find out just how Edgar wooed her out of the convent and just what happened in England that he lost his arm. Not to mention what comes next in the series.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 10, 2003 07:38 PM