Sunday, 11 May 2008

CJ Sansom, Revelation (London: Macmillan, 2008)

CJ Sansom has a doctorate in history from the University of Birmingham and is making jolly good use of it. He writes historical crime fiction. His detective is a lawyer called Matthew Shardlake who is working during the reign of Henry VIII. Revelation has just been published, the fourth in his a series of mysteries featuring the hunchback sleuth. I really enjoy this series and find these novels rather gripping. The plots are extremely good and Sansom sets up his stories within the wonderfully claustrophobic reign of Henry, where each wife is being beheaded one by one, and allegiances are shifting constantly. This creates a dynamic of mistrust and disquiet throughout that serves constantly to keep the tension levels high.

Revelation is the longest of the novels in the Shardlake series. In this novel Sansom is doing something a little different in that it is a crime with a distinctly modern edge. An old and trusted friend of Shardlake is horrifically murdered right at the heart of Lincoln's Inn. His widow asks Shardlake to help and he presents himself at the inquest to find out what happened. When the inquest is hushed up with indecent haste, it becomes obvious that greater powers are at work and he is duly brought before Cranmer who tells him that it appears not to be an isolated murder. Shardlake and Barak are taken into the confidence of the Archbishop. Their nervousness revolves around the king's recent interest in the widow Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr. These murders have a reformist edge and might be intended to throw an unfavourable light on her followers. But how can this be? The murders escalate quickly and a pattern begins to develop. It seems, in sum, that a serial killer is on the loose and he is constantly a step ahead of their every move. Can they act quickly enough to stop the escalation, and how can this be kept from the king. Not only is the novel fascinating for the usual historical, contextual detail, but they way that Shardlake and Dr Malton try to get inside the mind of the killer is also wonderful. They are proto-profilers, on the one hand trying to understand the killer and on the other trying to help a young man who has become paralyzed with guilt and remorse and in danger of getting himself burned at the stake for unauthorized preaching. Can they bring him round in time?

Dissolution (2003) is the first in the series of Shardlake mysteries. We are introduced to a hunchback lawyer who has been charged with a delicate matter. Thomas Cromwell is attempting to get the monasteries to accept the King as head of the church. Most are complying, but the political connections some of the monasteries have are, too, posing problems. So when the monastery of Scarnsee, on the Sussex coast proves difficult, a commissioner is dispatched to put some pressure on the abbot. Things begin to go very wrong when the commissioner ends up murdered, actually, beheaded, and the high altar has been desecrated with a sacrificed rooster. Cromwell needs to know what's going on, who killed the commissioner, and most importantly, he needs the abbot to sign papers relinquishing the monastery. So far so good. Shouldn't be too difficult to find out who did this. It is, after all, a closed-room mystery, more or less. And there aren't that many monks. But Shardlake gets a fright when people start to die around him, and he looks himself to be a target. With pressure mounting from Cromwell and a killer getting closer and closer to killing him, Shardlake desperately does not know who to trust.

Dark Fire (2004) is the second in the series and sees Shardlake return after having been left in peace for three years. A strange case comes to his attention. A young woman has been accused of murdering her young cousin, throwing him down a well. She has refused to say anything, and will soon be put under peine forte et dure in order to confess, to innocence or otherwise. But there's something odd about her silence that puzzles Matthew. The case is hopeless. She will die under the torture and the case will amount to nothing. Until, that is, Cromwell intervenes. He needs Matthew, known for his acumen and discretion, to investigate something. And he has put pressure on the judge to give him ten days grace to do so. The book proceeds, then, with the two stories running parallel (a common thread through Sansom's plotlines). Cromwell has been given to believe that some ancient formula for dark fire has been rediscovered in the cellar of St Bart's in London. He has even been given a demonstration of how it works. And he's convinced. Finding himself increasingly out of favour with the king, he sees this as his chance to become a trusted member of the inner circle again. Shardlake's mission is to find out how progress goes on Dark Fire and to get ready for the demonstration before the king the following week. Straightforward enough. Except, the very first people they interview, the makers of this dark fire, have been brutally murdered just moments before they arrive. And Shardlake, along with Cromwell's assistant Barak, must find out whether there is any substance to the claims for Dark Fire and just who is behind these brutal murders? The brutality of the killings, and the fact that Shardlake himself gets closer and closer to becoming his next victim, keeps the pace up, and all the while political chaos is gradually unfolding. Cromwell's grip is giving way and his impending downfall provides a brilliant backdrop for the denouement.

Sovereign (2006) is the third in the Shardlake series. The action is set in the Autumn of 1541 and the Progress to the North, culminating in the submission of the rebels in York. Shardlake has been entrusted with a secret mission to keep an eye on a prisoner with sensitive information. He must be kept alive long enough for questioning in the Tower and what information he has must be extracted from him (without killing him). When a glazier has a fall and makes some enigmatic remarks to Shardlake just before he dies, things begin rapidly to get out of control. The murders become more numerous and the King is ever approaching York. Can he work fast enough to find out what is going on and get to the bottom of these killings, and how does this prisoner fit in to the puzzle? This, combined with the intense interest in the snippets of information from the highest men in the realm all leads one to feel that there might be a lot more than is at first evident. A mysterious package of documents containing astonishing information is at the heart of the matter. Can he recover these cursed documents, and worst of all, what will happen if he ever finds out what is really in them? Sovereign is marvellous for the way it sets up some very implausible claims at the beginning of the novel that gradually become less and less so, until the truth is so shocking and the consequences so terrible, perhaps it is better to know nothing. A nice problem for a lawyer.

I've greatly enjoyed reading these novels and highly recommend them.


Anonymous said...

Hi I am wondering if I am the only person to have noticed major continuity problems in the Shardlake series. I find Book 4'Revelation' particularly bad in this respect, there are some minor errors and one major error of plot. Everyone seems to be praising this man; is his dad the publisher or something? Maybe I am missing some great literature here but I dont think so, and I wont be following on with the rest. Its a shame, its a brilliant idea, poorly executed

Miglior acque said...

Really? Like what? You are obviously a good deal more perceptive that I am! Do please elaborate!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...