This is a historical novel that takes place in southern France and northern Spain in the year 1142. This happens to be the year Peter Abelard (of Abelard and Heloise fame) died which is noted in this book. However, the main historical character being followed by this book is Peter the Venerable (1092–1156). The book focuses on his journey to Spain that year to meet with translators to make arrangements to translate the Arabic Qur'an (Koran) into Latin. Some scholars consider this to be a momentous event in the intellectual history of Europe. This is about the time when some of the writings of Aristotle (and other ancients) were being translated into Latin for the first time after being lost in the years following the fall of the Roman Empire. This was a time when the Islamic scholars were more advanced than scholars of western Christendom.
However, a warning to history buffs, the history in this book is only a backdrop to a fictional murder mystery plot. It is the fourth in a series of ten books in the "Catherine LeVendeur Series" by Sharan Newman. Sharan Newman goes out of her way to make the historical setting historically accurate. Much of the book takes place within the context of a traveling caravan on a pilgrimage to pray at the fabled Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela. Placing the story within the setting of a pilgrimage reminds me of The Canterbury Tales
. It's a context in which a wide variety of characters can be placed in close proximity, and thus is a natural setting to construct a fictional murder mystery plot. A traveling group containing multiple suspects was sort of reminiscent of Murder on the Orient Express
. There's even a cliff-hanger scene in the story to get the reader's adrenaline flowing.
I am impressed with the author's ability to portray medieval religious beliefs (including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) with sensitivity and realism. She is able to create sympathetic feelings within 21st Century readers for medieval religion even though the religious thinking of the time appears narrow and harsh to most modern minds. Also, by tying the book to the "Way of St. James" she has written a book about a pilgrimage that many people take today. (One source says 93,921 people made the pilgrimage in 2005). Therefore I decided to give this book four stars even though I usually limit murder mysteries to three stars because I consider the genre to be frivolous literature.