Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Review of Death Comes as Epiphany by Sharan Newman

I started reading this series some time ago but confused and put it down. After speaking to author Sharan Newman several years ago at Bouchercon, I realized that I hadn’t read the series in the proper sequence. I decided to try again, from the beginning.

Newman’s Catherine LeVendeur is very reminiscent of Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma. Both are young reliegieux who are well-read, intelligent and stubborn.

The first of the Catherine LeVendeur series, Death Comes as Epiphany, opens with the main character being sent on a secret mission by Heloise, the abbess of the Paraclete abbey. A psalter written by the nuns of Paraclete, mostly by Catherine herself, has been desecrated and accusations of heresy have been levied against Heloise’s beloved Abelard.

To give the investigation a cover, Catherine returns home in disgrace as part of the ruse. Her family, with the exception of her sister Agnes, is not happy to have her back. In fact, her mother refuses to acknowledge her presence. Catherine endures her family’s wrath in order to gain access to the library at Saint-Denis where the vandalized psalter is kept. It isn’t long before the sculptor Garnulf, working on the new abbey church at St. Denis falls to his death, nearly landing on Catherine.

The sculptor’s apprentice Edgar isn’t all he purports to be. Nevertheless, Catherine and Edgar form an unlikely alliance, each realizing the other has secrets.

Confounding the mystery of the psalter and the death of the sculptor is the presence of an enigmatic hermit near St. Denis who has many pilgrims seeking his blessings and cures. Catherine almost finds out the hard way just how the beautiful hermit administers to his female supplicants. She is horrified to discover what close friends and even family members have done in hopes of receiving the blessings they desperately seek.

Slowly, Catherine pieces together the seemingly unrelated events, stolen jewels, a rising body count and strange monks to find a disturbing conclusion.

The basis of the mystery in Death Comes as Epiphany is rather disturbing and may turn a few stomachs like mine. If there is a basis in fact, like many historical mysteries, it would be a chilling revelation. Despite the walk on the bizarre side, I enjoyed reading this a second time. I’m ready to start the series in the correct sequence now.

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