Mystery probes a harsh age
REVELATION: A Matthew
By C.J. Sansom
Viking, 560 pp., $26.95
The winter seems endless. Unprecedented snow and ice make travel treacherous. Poverty and crime are on the rise. The year is 1543, and Matthew Shardlake may be facing the most difficult case of his career.
Just in time for the latest round of contemporary storms, Shardlake has returned to transport readers back to an even harsher time, the declining years of King Henry VIII. The creation of British novelist C.J. Sansom, Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer, is suffering from the malaise of the era. By the opening of this fourth series outing, Shardlake has achieved professional security, his intelligence winning out over bias against his deformity. But his early zest for religious reform has cooled, and his belief in the king has turned to cynicism as the ailing monarch's court has become fractious and cruel. In the winter of his career, Henry VIII has cracked down on the religious reformers he once emulated. But his dissolution of the Catholic monasteries has also meant the breakdown of the social welfare system. With no monk-run hospitals or charity, London is overrun with the poor and the ill, and religious extremism runs rampant, despite the horror of public burnings.
Against this background Shardlake is charged with defending a young man who has been committed to Bedlam because of his religious rantings. His parents, religious reformers, want him released; after all, the boy is only praying for forgiveness for his unnamed sins. But the political climate means a relapse could lead to the stake. In addition, Shardlake's career may be jeopardized if he is seen to be siding with the reformers. When an apparently unrelated murder occurs closer to home, the king's new church once again may be involved. That horrific crime is revealed to be part of a string of killings, all linked to the disputed Book of Revelations, and Shardlake is charged with mounting a speedy, discreet investigation.
Sansom has returned to this 16th-century series after a brief foray into World War II-era suspense, and both he and his hunchback hero are better for the rest. Although "Revelation" is hardly a quick read, it is one of Sansom's most engaging as it involves all aspects of Shardlake's life, from friendships and romance to the knife-edge politics of the era. And Sansom, a former lawyer, fleshes out this life, incorporating details ranging from dress and food to legal trivialities, with a subtle touch.
At times the minutiae of Shardlake's life takes over. Sansom never abandons the mystery element, but solving the crimes comes to seem almost secondary to the personal issues at stake. When he ties the crimes together, the conclusion is a bit forced, the hefty book's one weak point.
Although some mystery fans may complain, lovers of historical novels shouldn't. Shardlake's story is the real reason to read these books. Using a slightly archaic style that feels appropriate for the buttoned-down lawyer, Sansom lets his protagonist show readers around his world, his observations sharp but never overdone. "He was one of the old corrupt breed," Shardlake says of a coroner, "who would leave a body lying stinking in the street for days till someone paid them to hold an inquest, not one of the more competent paid officials the Tudors had brought in." By reflecting on the recent past, Shardlake shows us his present world as lively, modern, and miserable as any we face today.
Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers" (Poisoned Pen Press).