Blood Libel (Isaac Alvarez Mysteries Book 1)

Written by M Lynes
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

Seville, 1495: Three years after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, some remain, having converted, at least publicly, to Catholicism. Isaac Camarino Alvarez is one, attending secret prayer meetings and keeping a ham on view in the window that only the maidservant eats, with the Torah scrolls in a cupboard. He has taken part in Holy Week processions and named his daughter after Queen Isabella, patron of the Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada – who has travelled to the city with his catspaw and fellow Dominican Alonso de Hojeda to seek out heretics and crypto-Jews.

The decapitated corpse of a child is discovered, and a hue and cry goes up that this is the work of the Jews, who have murdered the boy to mix his blood into Passover bread – the blood libel. After the death of his childhood friend in the macabre, baroque spectacle of an auto da fé, followed by his wife at the hands of the inquisitors (who favour a precursor of water-boarding), Isaac believes that the only way to halt the persecution of his fellow conversos is to discover the real killer.

Lynes tells his story through the parallel points of view of Isaac, in an edgy third-person present tense, and Alonso, writing a confessional diary. Isaac’s reluctance to flee with his family to safer Portugal or Italy until it is too late, and the risk of being denounced to the Inquisition by servants or colleagues, reflect life under later repressive regimes – just as the actions of the sympathetic Fr. Gutierrez recall those of some priests in Nazi-occupied Rome. Lynes knows his history (and provides a helpful bibliography) and tells his story with verve and enthusiasm.