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Review: The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr
Riverhead, 2016. 401 pp. $27

Nobody likes the priest of Belamar de la Sierra, a Spanish village in Aragon near the French border, and for good reason. But when he’s assassinated in March 1584, and his body used to desecrate his church, whatever he’s done to deserve his fate is immaterial. The crown and the Inquisition have accused Moriscos, former Muslims forcibly converted to Catholicism, of the murder. By definition, their crime is at once political and an apparent example of the heresy that must be rooted out of Spain.

An advisor to King Philip II counsels His Most Catholic Majesty to appoint a civil rather than an ecclesiastical investigator, much to the disgust of the Inquisition authorities. Nevertheless, Bernardo Mendoza, judge and erstwhile soldier in the wars against the Muslims, comes highly recommended, and he’s permitted to pursue the inquiry.

Philip II of Spain, ca. 1550, credited to Titian’s studio (courtesy Museo del Prado, Madrid, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in the U.S.)

That, however, is easier said than done. Not only do the people of Belamar de la Sierra, Christians of old lineage and Morisco alike, distrust the royal investigator and pretend they know nothing about the priest’s death, they all have stories about the extortion, debauchery, and rape the late man committed at their expense. But hardly has Mendoza heard even an inkling of these offenses when more murders occur, and more again, involving bandits, Moriscos, greedy landowners, rogue officers of the law, Inquisitors, and just about everyone else in Aragon. Double-crosses abound, no road is safe, and everyone is on the take.

Consequently, Carr has plenty of material with which to keep the wheels spinning at a dizzying rate. He also knows a great deal about sixteenth-century Spain, whether he’s writing about religious belief, politics, church architecture, or fashion, which he conveys in often vivid prose. I further appreciate Carr’s eye for themes, which include religious prejudice, where justice lies between poor alternatives, and misperceptions about Islam, which is certainly topical.

Despite all the busyness in The Devils of Cardona, though, it’s flat. It’s obvious very early on that the Moriscos are largely innocent, so there’s no mystery there. If you can’t tell by analyzing the clues, you know by the overly earnest tone praising these people and showing how badly they’ve been abused. I can’t argue; was there ever a more detestable monarchy or one that perverted law or morality in a more monstrous fashion? But I don’t need to read set-piece paragraphs explaining how Moriscos are really good guys once you get to know them. And that’s standard here, as Carr habitually tells you how to feel about his characters by giving them pleasant or unpleasant facial features, a judgment to which they live up, without fail. The good guys are obviously good, and the bad guys are really, really bad. And the baddest guys around are the landowners, so by page 200, or halfway through, you know that’s where Mendoza’s sleuthing will lead him. There’s little doubt how that will end.

Carr tries to throw you off the trail by introducing further and further twists, usually acts of violence, some of which are predictable too. But there’s a better way to keep readers turning the pages. We all want the innocent to triumph, and the inquisitors to be damned. But that’s abstract, and you could get that by reading a history of the period. Rather, I want to care about Mendoza and to see Inquisitor Mercader, his chief ecclesiastical adversary, in a way that makes him a full person. Unfortunately, Carr doesn’t allow either.

Donald Maass, a literary agent whose books have shaped my approach as a novelist and a reviewer, addresses this issue in his latest effort, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. He argues that the best you can get out of adding plot points is to keep the pages turning through sheer intricacy. But many, if not most, readers will give up, because you’ve failed to engage their empathy, and if they do finish the book, they’ll have trouble remembering it. To make a deeper, more lasting impression, you have to connect the characters’ inner lives with the action, and the manner in which you do so strikes a chord (or doesn’t). Tension resides in the reader’s mind, not the words on the page. And this is true, Maass says, for any type of fiction you can name, thriller or literary, romance or fantasy. Makes sense to me.

I think Carr is an able writer, and The Devils of Cardona is only his first novel. I hope his future efforts reveal his characters to greater depth and complexity–and if he manages that, he won’t have to work so hard at plotting.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.