Killers and Converts: Tensions of Inquisition-Era Spain

By Santiago, Esmeralda | International New York Times, July 29, 2016 | Go to article overview

Killers and Converts: Tensions of Inquisition-Era Spain


Santiago, Esmeralda, International New York Times


A priest's murder draws investigators into the tensions of Inquisition-era Spain.

The Devils of Cardona. By Matthew Carr. 401 pages. Riverhead Books. $27.

Matthew Carr is the respected author of several nonfiction books, among them "Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain." He has written extensively about terrorism and what he has identified as his life's work: "I've always been concerned with issues of war and peace and the role of violence in human affairs." In "The Devils of Cardona," his debut novel, he's found a story worthy of his personal concerns and characters who embody his preoccupations.

In 1584, a priest in Aragon, Spain, is murdered, his church desecrated, the walls defaced with Arabic words traced in his own blood. Soon after, the province Inquisitor receives a letter threatening to drive all Christians from the region by the same pitiless methods the church uses to force Muslims to convert or die. The author calls himself the Redeemer.

At a time when the Inquisition "sees heresy everywhere and ... hates the Moriscos," the murder and the letter alike threaten stability and require action by the Spanish crown. Licenciado Bernardo Mendoza, a veteran of the wars that expelled the Moors from Granada, now a criminal judge in Valladolid, is assigned to solve the priest's murder and bring the killers to justice, including the Redeemer, suspected of being the instigator.

To assist on his mission to the demesne of Cardona in the Pyrenees (close to the French border), Mendoza chooses his recklessly adventurous cousin Luis de Ventura and the loyal Johannes Necker, a stern German constable. Two young soldiers provide escort, and 17-year-old Gabriel, Mendoza's ward, is brought along to be his scrivener and to prepare reports for King Philip about the proceedings.

Arriving in the village of Belamar de la Sierra, where the priest was murdered, Mendoza soon learns that every resident is a potential suspect. Padre Juan was a corrupt, promiscuous lecher no one mourns. The villagers haven't heard or seen anything, and it's clear they wouldn't tell if they had. Mendoza is undeterred, but as he begins his investigation, Padre Juan's murder begins to seem part of something more sinister and dangerous.

No one in "The Devils of Cardona" has forgotten the region's shared history. Belamar's residents continue to observe and celebrate their Islamic faith in private while pretending to be Catholics in public. The Old Christians are suspicious of the New Christians, each side demonizing the other, resulting in frequent outbreaks of violence between villagers (Moriscos) and the farmers, shepherds and mountain people (montaneses) eking out a precarious life in an inhospitable landscape of high ridges and deep valleys.

The Moriscos consider themselves Spaniards who wish to live and work according to their faith. The Christians wish the same except that, for them, Catholicism is life and anything else is heresy. …

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