One is tempted to distrust Charmaine Craig. Harvard educated, an actress (remember White Fang II?) with runway-model looks, she could almost have been genetically engineered by the publicist for The Good Men (Riverhead Books; 399 pages; $24.95), her ambitious first novel about an outbreak of heresy in medieval France. But one would be wrong not to trust her, because as a writer she's the real deal. And as it happens, her work has much to say about both temptation and distrust.
The action takes place in Montaillou, a tiny mountain village that is falling under the influence of saintly wanderers known as Good Men who preach that the world was created by the devil and should be despised. The narrative, which is based on historical sources, unfolds from several points of view: those of an alcoholic widow, a lustful village priest, a cobbler struggling with his homosexuality, a conflicted Inquisitor. Craig has the gift of finding complexity in simple people, and she tells their stories in fluid, shapely prose that blends mysteries both religious and erotic with the scratchy, stinky realities of peasant life. She slips only rarely into the "But what troubles you, Father?" school of historical dialogue.
When the Inquisition descends on Montaillou, Craig credibly and creditably allots all sides--heretics, informers, even torturers--a measure of sympathy. She demonstrates powerfully that even those who escape the rack, by good luck or God's grace, can end up being broken by life in other ways.
--By Lev Grossman