What makes a book irresistibly good? What type of book garners remarks like “couldn’t put it down”, ” a real page turner” and so on?
Are they character driven, or is it the genre, the plot, the setting, the style, the twist or the originality? All of them, of course and much more as well.
But to find, not only all of the above in a strong, character-driven novel, but also a specific and vivid historical mystery in Tudor times, is a find indeed.
In the Shardlake series of novels by C. J. Sansom both mystery and a historical vividness blend seamlessly in the humanist form of a candid and honest barrister at Lincoln’s Inn during Tudor times. Unwillingly, he finds himself working for Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s first minister, and other members of the court as the massive task of dissolving the monasteries’ grasp on power and land begins. An ardent reformer in his youth, Shardlakes begins to withdraw from the capriciousness and cruelty of the court but finds himself investigating, on Cromwell’s behalf, the murder of a high official at an isolated monastery in the depths of winter.
The six novels in the series (so far) span the reign of Tudor Henry VIII, from the winter of 1537 to the summer of 1546. Tudor England, where Henry has already broken with Rome and assumed the role of Head of Church as well as State, is a dangerous world of fanatical religious reformers, ambitious and jostling informers and unscrupulous and powerful performers and where to speak one’s true thoughts on religion and God could lead to charges of heresy and death by torture and burning.
In Dissolution, the first in the series, Matthew Shardlake, single, a lawyer, a humanitarian and a hunchback, regarded with distrust and fear by most people because of his deformity, reviled but used by the nobility for his intelligence, diligence and ability, is sent to investigate the sacrilegious murder of one of Cromwell’s commissioners in a remote monastery in the midst of a freezing winter. Drawn into a world so completely realized, the actual setting is as palpable as the villians he encounters, Shardlake’s involuntary involvement with the politics of the law and church unravels murders and mayhem. Increasingly disillusioned, he must juggle personal and conflicting ideals, as reforms seep into the kingdom. Emotionally scarred by his brush with politics and greed, Shardlake is determined to withdraw to an ordered and quiet life at Lincoln’s Inn helping those who are most in need of his legal skills.
However, in Dark Fire, the second in the series and, again at Cromwell’s express command, Shardlake, with the help of his new assistant, Jack Barak, must discover the source of a lost secret weapon – Greek Fire – with which Cromwell hopes to regain the king’s favour while at the same time acquiring an apparently hopeless case defending a young girl accused of murdering her own cousin.
Fascinating in both the legal details of the time – “peine et dure” being a case in point – and the seething background of the London scene, Shardlake discovers that in the world of alchemy and greed, nothing is as it seems and avariciousness plays an equal part in the life’s of both the common and noble folk.
Hoping to avoid further contact with the court after Cromwell’s downfall, Shardlake is nevertheless involved on missions for Archbishop Crammer and in Sovereign, he travels with Henry’s court to York on the Great Progress, dealing with legal submissions to the king but also to oversee the welfare of a traitor due to be conveyed to the Tower of London for a torturous interrogation. A seemingly irrelevant murder in York involves the lawyer and his irreverent assistant in a cache of secret documents which undermine the sanctity of the Tudor throne and which brings Shardlake terrifyingly face to face with the torturers in the Tower.
Revelation, the fourth novel, delves into the twisted world of a serial killer – a concept so alien to the ordinary Tudor mind that it arouses fears of witchcraft and sorcery, all the more so when inextricably linked with the prophecies of the biblical Book of Revelations. Taking on the case of an accused heretic, confined within Bedlam insane asylum, Shardlake must navigate the treacherous waters of religious purges while investigating the murder of his best friend linked to the dark prophecies of Revelations.
Heartstone, the penultimate novel in the sextet, sees Shardlake set off for Portsmouth on a private mission for Catherine Parr in the summer of 1545 as Henry prepares the Mary Rose and The Great Harry for a imminent French invasion.
Strong, driven characters, grounded in a specific time or era, essential but often locations are cursorily sketched or taken for granted but not so, in these multi-layered mystery events set in Tudor times. Shardlake, with his modest and unassuming air, a strong moral integrity and a keen interest in using the law to help the downtrodden, is a true renaissance man who grows and develops through constant danger among the shifting thoughts and trends of Tudor politics, a vivid and immediate setting, dealing with bewildering and baffling murders, alien to the beliefs and understandings of the time.
Multiple plot lines weave seamlessly together as characters assume unexpected relationships which reverberate through the stark realities of the Tudor world where being different or out of favour risks cruelty or execution. Shardlake, determined, scrupulous but above all, human must investigate events as feared and misunderstood at the time as terrorist outrages are today.
I’m looking forward to getting my hand on the most recent in the series, Lamentations.