Friday, May 27, 2016


Title: The Devils of Cardona
Author: Matthew Carr

Publisher: Riverhead books
Pages: 416

The Devils of Cardona is worth every minute of the time you spend reading it. Beginning as a murder mystery set against the backdrop of inter-religious tensions, events quickly degenerate into a conspiracy of violence and more that keep you glued to the page.

Corrupt priest Juan Panalles, parish priest of the church at Belamar de la Sierra, is untrue to his vows. Sex, gambling, and drinking, he is familiar with all the vices that should have been anathema to him. The region is home to the Moriscos, Moorish converts to Christianity. The parishioners look upon Panalles with fear and loathing.

When Panalles is brutally murdered, and the church desecrated, it seems as if everybody is relieved. Worse, it seems that somebody, calling himself the Redeemer, is inciting revolt in Aragon. This Redeemer is also indulging in blatant sadism and mutilation of the dead bodies and blasphemy of religious symbols.

Licenciado Bernardo Mendoza, a criminal judge with a reputation for being incorruptible, even though his moral codes might not always be aligned with what the Church prescribes, is sent to investigate the murder and glean the truth about the Redeemer. He journeys to Aragon, accompanied by his scribe Gabriel, soldiers Martin and Daniel, constable Necker and his cousin, Luis Ventura.

There is something swashbucklingly reckless about Luis, and it is ably tempered by Mendoza’s discipline, the bravery of soldiers Daniel and Martin, and of constable Necker and the innocence of Gabriel. There is an air of rivalary between them but they still make a good team. Such is the party that sets out on the investigation. So good is the writing that it felt as if I was also one of them.

The investigations begin in right earnest. When two nuns are raped and suspicion falls on three Moriscos, it escalates tensions. Very soon, the region witnesses a deterioration of the law and order situation as avengers attack the Moriscos. In a Spain in which religion and business are not mutually exclusive, there is a lot at stake.

The widowed Countess of Cardona, in whose domain the Moriscos live, treats them with dignity and compassion, irking Mercader, a high official of the Inquisition, and the Baron of Vallcarca, a neighbouring domain, who dreams of being the master of Cardona.

The more that Mendoza and his team investigate the case, the more convoluted it appears.

Who is orchestrating the mayhem? Is it the Redeemer or somebody else? Will peace ever come to Cardona?

I’d advise you to find out for yourself.

The story is set in 1584 during the Spanish Inquisition when heretics were burned at the stake and the Church was all-powerful. The sale of indulgences was rampant. The Reformation had begun and attempts were being made to squash it. The Protestants were deemed heretics and executed. I find this period of history intriguing and morbidly fascinating at the same time.

The author paints a scary picture of the atrocities practiced at the time, as the Inquisition routinely arrested people on the flimsiest of reasons such as for not having paid attention at Mass, or not going to confession during Lent, thereby reducing matters of faith to rituals that must be followed mechanically on pain of death.

The description of the tortures that the accused were subjected to in an attempt to get them to confess was particularly brutal.

It is a time when goodness seems under grave threat and villainy is rife. Mercader, Baron Vallcarca, and many others are all villains, but the Inquisition is no less villainous.

Mendoza seemed weighted down by his responsibilities, which added shades of truth to his personality. His work is stymied by the lack of information and the rumours that swirl around the villages. Yet, he is fair and stands for the defenceless.

The enmity between the Moriscos and the Church is strong. Life is hard, and the law and order situation tenuous.

The book has a rich cast of characters and, initially, I struggled to keep up with them, especially given the plethora of Spanish names and titles, both very long, of minor and major characters, which added to the problem.

Pretty soon you find yourself getting carried away by the sense of adventure and excitement. The author transports us to medieval times, every detail perfectly expressed.

The meanings of the Spanish words are embedded in the story, which is the way I like it. It annoys me when authors resort to footnotes and glossaries.

The author’s own sense of irony shines through when Gabriel asks, “How do you tell the Old Christians from the Moriscos?” and Luis replies, “The Moriscos are the ones with horns and tails.” Lines such as these endear Luis to us.

The amount of research and knowledge of old Spanish history seen in these pages is amazing. One gets an idea of the terror that the Inquisition wreaked in those times and the horrors it was allowed to get away with. Carr also displays indepth knowledge of the tenets of Catholicism. We also get beautiful descriptions of the Spanish countryside and Church architecture. 

I was particularly impressed with the author’s research into the law and order situation then, besides other details like the art of fencing. These make the story more authentic and alive.

I admired the Countess of Cardona as a character for her nobility of spirit and the true Christianity she displays, going to the extent of openly defying the Baron of Vallcarca.

There is a scene in this book where Mendoza describes a book of a time as being much prettier than the reality of the time. Books always are, he says.

Not this one. 

The Devils of Cardona is a hard-hitting story that goes beyond a murder mystery to encompass issues of faith and the atrocities meted out in the name of religion. Packed with adventure and a cast of truly colourful characters, this book will provoke you into thinking and stay with you long after you put it down.

(I received a free digital copy of this book from First To Read.)

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