Catherine LeVendeur, an 18-year old novice at the French Convent at Paraclete, is enlisted by the famous abbess Heloise to go on a mission to the Abbey in her hometown. A psalter prepared at the convent, which Catherine was largely responsible for, has been altered in a way that accuses the famous scholar Abelard-and Heloise as well-of heresy, and Catherine is to inspect it and possibly retrieve it. To carry out Heloise's plan, Catherine must return home under the guise of being disgraced for being willful and disobedient. Once at home, her mother refuses to acknowledge her out of shame, and her father takes her to task for bad behavior. Luckily, her handsome uncle Roger, her 16-year-old sister, and an old sculptor working on the construction of a new church are sympathetic. Before Catherine can do much reconnaissance concerning the psalter, however, the sculptor dies under suspicious circumstances, and at this point, the story picks up speed as mysterious circumstances start piling up. Not knowing whom to trust, Catherine must keep her own counsel, though she is determined to "kidnap" the psalter from the Abbey to get it to Abelard as well as find out if the sculptor's death was an accident or something more sinister. Two more murders, a possible murder attempt upon Catherine, a mysterious stonemason, various knights, holy men, thieves, and rioters, along with a touch of romance, family politics, and political intrigue all come together in this lively and entertaining medieval mystery.
Set in 1139 France, the story holds true to the gender limitations of the era while at the same time allowing Catherine spunk and forthrightness that surely many women back then possessed. She plans to become a nun, instinctively knowing that the convent is one of the few places where she can read and think and reason about philosophy and ethical matters without censure. But she never counted on what would happen to her in the outside world upon leaving the safety of the cloisters.
This is an excellent mystery adventure, well told, by a writer with considerable skill and a remarkable background in medieval history. The setting, plot and characterizations ring true, and we never get bogged down in the mundane historical recitations to which many other novelists might subject the reader. Instead, like Ellis Peters' fine medieval mysteries, this top-notch novel rolls along toward a satisfying conclusion which left this reviewer wanting more. It is fortunate that this is merely the first in a series of books Newman has written about Catherine LeVendeur. I recommend it highly.