The Difficult Saint
In this, the sixth Catherine LeVendeur mystery, Sharan Newman transports us to France in 1146. Catherine, a worthy heroine who is constantly finding – although not seeking – trouble, returns to Paris with her Scottish husband, Edgar, and their two young children. All they seek is the peace and tranquility of home after their harrowing escapades in Scotland.
Seeking and finding, however, are two different things, particularly when Catherine is involved. Anti-Jewish sentiment is on the rise in France. Catherine’s father, Hubert, although born a Jew, has “passed” as a Christian since his family was killed by Christian zealots when he was a small boy. Recognized throughout his community as a Christian, but practicing his Judaism in secret, Hubert has refused to accept Christianity and thus has alienated his younger daughter, Agnes. Bitter about their religious differences, Agnes leaves home to marry a German husband, determining to forever cut ties to her family.
And so the mystery begins to unfold. When Agnes’s husband dies suddenly, shortly after the wedding, Agnes is the prime suspect in a murder investigation. The LeVendeur family comes to Agnes’s rescue, and during the investigation, Catherine becomes aware of the spread of growing anti-Semitic feelings into Germany.
Although Newman has previously explored the strong undercurrent of anti-Jewish sentiment pervasive in medieval Europe in her earlier LeVendeur mysteries, the author now deals with that issue head on. The ultimate resolution can be reasonably predicted, but it is how Newman reaches that resolution which is worth the read. Her characters are funny and sympathetic, and the writing is vintage Newman. Also, her research is apparent, with personalities such as Bernard of Clairvaux, his coterie, and even the wicked Radulf well documented in sources of the period.
However, having read all of the previous LeVendeur books, I felt that Newman was forcing it a bit on this one. Catherine’s “cuteness” is not as cute as it once was, nor are a number of episodes necessary to plot development. It seems that Newman was trying to meet all the elements of her particular formula, and as far as I was concerned, some of those elements did not move the action along at all.
Despite these minor flaws, I continue to read and enjoy Newman’s work, and I look forward eagerly to her next endeavor. Newman is a novelist with considerable insight: as she points out in her Afterword, Catherine and Edgar are, after all, not the movers and shakers, but the moved and shaken. It is how they live their lives through what we call “history” that makes us realize how we, ourselves, are living through what will, one day, be the “history” of others.