Monday, 3 September 2012

C.J. Sansom

Since I was a child, I’ve been interested in the Tudor period. This can be partly attributed to learning about the Tudors in primary school, but mostly thanks to Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories: The Terrible Tudors.

So when I found the Matthew Shardlake books by author C.J. Sansom, I was dead pleased!

To my knowledge there are five books in the series:
1. Dissolution
2. Dark Fire
3. Sovereign
4. Revelation
5. Heartstone

The hero of these historical detective stories is Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer practising from Lincoln’s Inn, London. The books are set in Tudor England, during the reign of the infamous Henry VIII, beginning with the dissolution of the monasteries and continuing through to the sinking of the Mary Rose. Each tale is filled with mystery and drama along with an insight into the life of the era. 

When I first started reading these stories, I disliked the fact that the author had made Shardlake a hunchback, as it seemed like he was trying too hard to make an unusual character.
But I stuck at it, because I liked how the story was written.
As the story progressed, I realised what a clever idea it was to give the main character an obvious deformity.
Shardlake isn’t young, nor immensely handsome, and whilst the state of his finances is comfortable he’s hardly rolling in money; nor is he a man of title.
What Shardlake is, however, is incredibly clever--a Tudor era Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.

Each of these books has a little map at the front, to depict the area in which the story is set. I think this is rather cool :)

The first of the Shardlake books is set during the Dissolution of the monasteries. Working under Cromwell, Shardlake and his assistant Mark Poer are dispatched to Scarnsea, Sussex, to investigate the strange murder of a royal commissioner.
As Shardlake and Poer investigate, two more murders come to light, along with evidence of treason and corruption. Little by little, they come closer to the truth--and the murderer. 

An interesting story that sheds light on the Dissolution. I’m a little biased in the favour of this book as it’s set in my county :)

Dark Fire
This second book is set in 1540, three years after Dissolution. Shardlake is once again on a case, this time of a girl charged with murder. Just as it seems he’ll lose the case, Cromwell steps in and offers him a deal: the proceedings against the girl will be delayed by two weeks if Shardlake will do some work for Cromwell. His task is to find the Dark Fire, a liquid with the power to catch fire and burn with epically destructive results. Following Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves, Cromwell is in poor favour with the king and looking to Shardlake to provide the means for him to get back into Henry’s good books.
Once again Shardlake is sent headlong into danger and intrigue, this time on the trail with one of Cromwell’s men, Jack Barak.

This tale truly strikes home the corruption within the royal court. Ulterior motives, treachery--people will stop at nothing to see the intentions realised.

In this book, Shardlake and Barak have been sent north into York. Following a conspiracy against the king, Henry VIII is has set off on a great ‘progress’ in attempt to squash any chance of rebellion. With him is Catherine Howard, his fifth wife, select nobles, and thousands of soldiers. Working with aged local lawyer Giles Wrenne, Shardlake is processing petitions to the king, which will be ceremoniously handed to Henry VIII on his arrival in York.
But there’s a second reason for Shardlake’s presence in York: he has been charged to protect a dangerous conspirator, imprisoned in York to be transported to London. Shardlake must ensure the prisoner’s wellbeing so the man can be interrogated in the Tower, something that gives him a little crisis of conscience.
The plot deepens when a local glazier is murdered, and Shardlake discovers a box of secret papers, some of which threaten Henry’s claim to the throne. This discovery thrusts Shardlake even further into danger and with unknown enemies working against him, the threat of being thrown into the tower himself becomes all the more real.

For most of the second part of this book, I was torn between two possible ‘baddies’ behind the main plot, but didn’t completely figure it out until the truth was revealed.

It’s 1543. England is in the midst of religious unrest, with an impending mass-burning of all those considered ‘heretical’.
Shardlake has a new mystery to solve: that of a religious teenage boy, held in the Bedlam for his own safety. The boy has been imprisoned for religious mania, spouting out heretical and treasonous words that could lead to his execution.
Meanwhile, one of Shardlake’s oldest friends is brutally murdered. Shardlake promises the man’s widow that he’ll find the murderer and bring them to justice. As he investigates, he discovers other murders have taken place--gruesome interpretations of the book of Revelation. Throughout the investigation, the serial killer is always one step ahead of Shardlake, with his victims already planned...and one of them could be Shardlake himself.

This was a fantastic book! I usually struggle a little with works involving religion, but this was so full of intrigue that I couldn’t put it down.

It’s 1545 and Henry VIII’s warships are gathering at Portsmouth, to be joined by a huge army conscripted from the people of England. Henry VIII’s invasion of France has been unsuccessful, and now a fleet of French ships is due to leave for the English coast.
Shardlake has been given a case from a servant of Catherine Parr: to investigate alleged wrongdoings against a ward of the court, Hugh Curtey. At the same time, Shardlake becomes interested in another matter: the mystery surrounding Ellen Fettiplace, a woman in the Bedlam, whose past is full of secrets.
Whilst investigating the matter of Hugh Curtey, Shardlake takes it upon himself to also look into Ellen Fettiplace’s past, wanting to answer the question of how she ended up in the Bedlam.
Shardlake and Barak’s investigations take them into Portsmouth, where they find themselves at the very heart of the war preparations, and once more thrown into danger.

Another gripping, page-turner of a novel. Even knowing how some parts of the story (historical fact) were going to turn out didn’t ruin it. The tale isn’t without its surprises, either!

If you only read one of these books, read: Revelation.


  1. These sound like great books and I'm thrilled to find that they are available at my library. Definitely going to check them out - thanks for the recommendation.

  2. erm... I'm starting to think you are raiding my bookshelf, young lady!
    I have all of these and I love them to bits. Well- written, historically pretty accurate and characters I can actually relate to.


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