THE DEVILS OF CARDONA by Matthew Carr

(Philip II of Spain and Hapsburg Emperor)

Toward the end of the late 16th century the reign of Philip II of Spain and ruler of the Hapsburg lands of Central Europe seemed threatened by external and domestic forces.  Externally, Queen Elizabeth of England worked to undermine his kingdom by supporting pirates and the armies of William of Orange as the Dutch continued their revolt against the Spanish monarch.  Across the Pyrenees, the King of France also did his best to cause difficulties for Philip.  Internally, Phillip had to deal with Moriscos, Moslems or Moors who had converted to Catholicism to avoid the punishment of the Inquisition.  This time period serves as the backdrop for Matthew Carr’s wonderful new novel, THE DEVILS OF CARDONA, an exploration of the social, economic, and political forces at work in Philip II’s kingdom through a plot centering on the murder of a despised Catholic priest, Padre Juan Panalle in the Belmar de la Sierra, an area in north eastern Spain near the French border.  Panalle was a despicable character who used his flock, mostly converted Moslems, to meet his sexual and economic needs.  Officials in Madrid had grown increasingly concerned about the Moslem threat and ordered Licenciado Bernardo Francisco Baldini de Mendoza a young judicial official to travel from his home in Valladolid in Castile to the site of the murder in Aragon and arrest and convict the guilty party.

Mendoza is a fascinating character who had witnessed the work of the Inquisition as a youngster and was still subjected to nightmares as an adult.  He never imagined that he would be part of the legal system that the Inquisition dominated during his career.  The instructions he received seemed clear, but as his work began his charge seemed much more complex than he was led to believe.  First, he had to deal with the goals of the Inquisition and its emissary, Mercader.  Second, was the government’s jurisdiction in Belmar, which fell under the auspices of the Countess of Cardona who had full jurisdiction over her kingdom that included Inquisitors and his Majesty’s own officials dating back to 1085, and recently renewed by Charles V in 1519.  Many of her vassals were Moriscos and she believed in bringing her subjects to Catholicism through acts of kindness, not the hammer blows of the Inquisition.  Mercader is convinced that the Countess is secretly allowing her subjects to maintain their Islamic faith, a charge that she vehemently denies.  Third, upon traveling to Cardona, Mendoza learned of the murder of three brothers which seemed to be an act of revenge perpetrated by Moslems. Fourth, a vicious plot perpetuated by one of Philip II’s counselors who sought to enrich himself by acquiring the Cardona estates.  Lastly, Mendoza was exposed to the threat of a supposed Moslem “redeemer,” who sought to avenge the work of the Inquisition and retake Spain from Philip II and reinstitute Islamic rule.

Carr does a magnificent job of capturing the essence of late 16th century Spain.  The cultural conflict between the Castilian and Aragonese regions is presented accurately as is the corrupt nature of the clergy, as well as the political and religious machinations of Philip II’s kingdom that greatly contribute to the novel’s plot.  The religious conflict between the Catholic Church and Islam dating back to the first half of the 16th century and the political problems between Castile and Aragon in particular are explored nicely through the many colorful characters Carr creates.  The plot is further enhanced as the Countess of Cardona, a widow whose extensive holdings are sought by many men who see their own power and wealth threatened by her marriage status.  By integrating “marriage diplomacy” into his story line, Carr heightens the reader’s understanding of events by placing them in their proper historical context.

As the novel progresses Mendoza finds himself in a jurisdictional fight with Mercader and the Inquisition.  Mercader has his own agenda that would allow him to rid Spain of the Moriscos and elevate himself in the eyes of Philip II.  Murders keep piling up and the conflicts between vested interests dominate the novel as evidence of a real redeemer emerge, particularly when  a Moslem family is massacred by a Catholic smuggling ring, creating further confusion.  As Mendoza’s investigation continues it takes a number of unexpected turns that will capture the reader’s attention to the point they cannot put the book down.  If you enjoy a good mystery enhanced by the sights and sounds of 16th century Spain, Carr’s effort will fascinate you.

The Devils of Cardona
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