Sunday, January 06, 2008

Three novels by Catherine Jinks

The first two reviews were published previously, in very slightly different form, in the Historical Novels Review, in 2000 and 2001 respectively. The last one is brand new, and original.

Since the review for The Inquisitor was published, the novel appeared in an American edition (which was, unfortunately, released to little fanfare). It's out of print now, but you can find it on http://www.abebooks.com/. Should you wish to order any of them from Australia, I recommend the Australian Online Bookshop.

THE INQUISITOR
Catherine Jinks, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2000, AU$22.95 , 393pp, pb, 0-330-36194-5 / St. Martin's Minotaur, 2002, 393pp, hb, 0-312-30815-9, out of print

Brother Bernard Peyre of Prouille, of the city of Lazet in the French Pyrenees, is surprisingly tolerant for a member of his profession. An inquisitor of heretical depravity in the year 1318, he is one of the few who does not believe that the sins of the fathers -- heretical belief in the Cathar faith, in other words -- are necessarily visited upon the sons. When fifty-year-old registers go missing, and his superior, Father Augustin Duese (a voracious persecutor of potential Cathars and agnostics), is murdered in unusual fashion, under instant suspicion are descendants of heretics accused and convicted years before. Other potential murderers are a group of seemingly questionable women living in a nearby mountain village. Brother Bernard attempts to look past superstition in order to ferret out the truth. But in attempting to protect the innocence of others, his very actions become a source of contention amongst his fellow members of the Holy Office. He soon finds that he, once the accuser, is now the accused who must defend himself against heretical charges.

Half historical mystery and half thriller with unexpected elements of romance, The Inquisitor quickly immerses us in a world of mistrust, fear, and suspicion. Few explanatory details are provided, and readers unused to medieval locales may feel a bit unsettled. Yet those who wish to feel the cold stone monastery walls, smell the blood and corruption, or simply visit a unique setting not often seen in historical fiction, there will be much here worth discovering. The mystery, as well, is wonderfully articulated, and the perpetrator (or is it perpetrators?) of the gruesome deeds are well hidden until the very end.

THE NOTARY
Catherine Jinks, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2001, AU$19.95, 561pp, pb, 0-330-36253-4

Raymond Maillot's passable skills as a notary have always taken second place to the pleasures of the flesh. However, when the sober Dominican monk called Father Amiel asks for his assistance with a high-level investigation into sorcery and murder, Raymond can hardly refuse. As the pair's scrutiny into this case continues, it's hard to say what challenges Raymond the most: finding a motive for a ghastly murder in which the victim's private parts were severed; his unforeseen desire to improve his carefree life by joining the church; or the agreement he makes with Father Amiel to stay celibate until their work is finished.

Fourteenth-century Avignon comes alive in full color under Jinks's pen. No stone is left unturned in her very human portrayal of Raymond, trying so hard to be worthy of Father Amiel's regard but barely able to keep his lustful nature under control. His adventures, as written, are at once lewd, literate, and laugh-out-loud funny. As with The Inquisitor, the author's previous medieval thriller, this novel assures a thumping good read. The murder mystery within the book is absorbing in itself, but the real crime here is that Jinks's novels are not published outside Australia.

THE SECRET FAMILIAR: Confessions of an Inquisitor's Spy
Catherine Jinks, Allen & Unwin, 2006, AU$29.95, pb, 308pp, 1-74175-050-4

It is 1321 in southwestern France, and for the past few years Helié Bernier has worked as a parchment-maker in Narbonne, living quietly under an alias. He had hoped to forget his past life as a spy for his former master, famous inquisitor Bernard Gui, but a chance meeting and false accusation brings him to the Holy Office's attention once more. Displeased to have lost track of his "secret familiar," Father Bernard orders him to infiltrate the Beguin sect, a heretical group of spiritual Franciscans who observe strict poverty and disdain the worldly "Carnal Church." Helié's mission: to discover what happened to Jacques Bonet, a previous spy who disappeared after being assigned a similar task. Tracing Bonet's path to a Beguin household yet unable to learn his whereabouts, Helié attempts to ferret out the truth: did Jacques successfully manage to elude his master, as Helié once did? Did he, as a former heretic, return to his old ways? Or was he murdered by the Beguins after his cover was blown? Either way, Helié faces the same danger as his predecessor, especially as he tries to keep borrowed heretical texts -- necessary for research purposes -- secret from his loyal, curious young apprentice.

In terms of tone, The Secret Familiar feels like an amalgam of the two previous novels: The Inquisitor was suspenseful and sobering, while The Notary lent a light, bawdy touch to an atmosphere of medieval depravity. This volume reads deceptively quickly, despite the grim subject; that and the dashes of humor give the initial impression of an easy, undemanding read. Don't be fooled, for Jinks drops clues in very subtly, and those who choose to skim will overlook them completely. She never hand-holds readers through medieval history, which may make readers scurry to an encyclopedia, and I suspect a second, closer reading would uncover additional details.

In his investigation, Helié encounters or hears mention of many heretics, some of whom appear only briefly or not at all on the page, which makes following the chain of possible betrayers a challenge. Yet Jinks is clearly at home in this dark, uncertain world of religious persecution -- the atmosphere certainly feels authentic -- and the novel works well as a fast-paced historical thriller. It also poses difficult questions on morality: What does it mean to be a good person? In deciding between two different evils, which one should you betray? And does the end justify the means? To see how Helié ultimately answers these questions, you'll have to read the book.

10 comments:

  1. I hope Ms. Jinks sent you a "Thank You" letter! Especially for that last sentence in "The Notary" piece.

    These are wonderfully written reviews. You should be doing this for a living!

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  2. Wow, thanks!

    What's amusing is that I made a similar comment about Tobsha Learner's The Witch of Cologne, another Australian book I reviewed years ago. And last year, Tor released an American edition. Which seems to have done fairly well. I think it's more coincidence than anything, though it would be flattering to believe otherwise!

    Jinks has had a number of her YA novels released in the USA since, and they seem to have found their audience, unlike The Inquisitor which was released mainly for the library market.

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  3. Sarah,

    You've used that phrase before, "library market." Aren't all mainstream novels available to libraries as well as stores? Do some publishers make that distinction, and if so, why?

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  4. This is a complex issue, and someone who works for a book distributor or bookstore may wish to expand upon this (or correct me). However...

    Bookstores and libraries can both order, theoretically, any book that's in print. But there are some publishers that focus primarily on library sales. Five Star (US) is one, and Robert Hale (UK) is another. They sell direct to libraries via standing orders, and their books are available through wholesalers (like Baker & Taylor) which many libraries use to purchase new materials. (Bookstores use B&T also, for special orders.) It costs money for publishers to get their books stocked on bookstore shelves... they work with distributors who send their sales reps to visit stores, etc.

    There are some publishers, also, that are selective about which titles of theirs will be marketed to bookstores. For example, there are many hardcover historical fiction titles (of which The Inquisitor was one) that I have never seen in a major chain bookstore, ever. They are, however, reviewed in library periodicals, and I've seen them on the shelves in the indie store near Champaign - meaning the indie went to the trouble of ordering it even though it wasn't being actively marketed to them.

    Books released for the library market tend to be hardcover only, for obvious reasons.

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  5. Wow, I never knew that. Thanks for the explanation, Sarah!

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  6. I never knew that, either! Thanks for clarifying.

    The libraries must have great confidence in these publishers if they are buying books on standing order, sight unseen presumably.

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  7. That, plus they generally receive a good discount if they do.

    Publishers who focus on library sales also price their books higher... Severn House is another such, and their hardcovers are in the range of $27.95-$28.95.

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  8. I never realized that some publishers concentrated on library sales. Very interesting. I have seen several books from time to time that were published by Robert Hale however and look for it specifically when I am trying to find something to read. I read "The Witch of Cologne" enjoyed it and have seen the Catherine Jinks books when searching historical fiction. I will be sure to read them now. I enjoy your blog!
    kathygarrelts@aol.com

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  9. Thanks for your comments!

    When I went to London maybe 7-8 years ago, I spent hours in bookstores (mainly on Charing Cross) looking for a few brand new novels from Hale. I knew they were recently published, and it puzzled me that they were nowhere to be found. I didn't realize then that bookstores don't regularly stock them. (Presumably, not unless the author's doing a signing.)

    It does annoy me that not only are their books hard to get, but they're also expensive. Book Depository often doesn't stock them either, meaning you have to pay $$$ in postage from Amazon UK, too.

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  10. Sarah:

    Good explanation! There are many people who don't realize this. I often have to explain it to library patrons, particularly when they want to know why we in the public library don't always have a title the same day it hits the bookstores.

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