It seems quite topical to write about C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series, given the fact that Book 6 in the series, Lamentation, has just been published after a wait of 4 years. Just to cut straight to the point: it was well worth waiting, and if anything, Lamentation may be the strongest book in the series yet. Some early reviews have already been published, such as Stephanie Merritt’s review for The Observer, or Alfred Hickling’s perceptive piece for The Guardian, but the complexity of the book (and the series as a whole) is such that a closer look may be warranted.
We last met Serjeant of the Law Matthew Shardlake in the summer of 1545, just after the sinking of the Mary Rose in Southampton, barely surviving the ordeal, and things don’t look overly cheerful for him when the story resumes a year later in 1546 and we find Matthew at the burning of Anne Askew, in a London that seems claustrophobic and suspicious, with barely contained religious violence everywhere. Of course, Shardlake plunges into the thick of it with not just one, but two cases; Sansom builds masterfully on a landscape readers are already familiar with from the previous five books in the series, so within a few pages, the story is set up and starts to unfold. One of Sansom’s trademarks as a writer is carrying multiple parallel storylines that weave in and out of each other; in Shardlake’s case, this sees the protagonist simultaneously pursuing several cases and following multiple lines of enquiry. One case concerns a dispute between siblings over chattels left in their mother’s will, run-of-the-mill (or is it!!??!) for Shardlake, while a second case takes him to the heart of the Court at Whitehall and into the presence of Queen Katherine Parr herself. And we are off on a superbly told story that follows the (fictional) Shardlake as he interacts with the historical cast of characters which include, for the first time, a young Cecil Burghley. Sansom’s Shardlake has already served a range of masters, from Cromwell to Archbishop Cranmer to Queen Katherine Parr, but with the imminent deatyh of King Henry VIII its clear that Shardlake’s patron will change again: introducing Cecil Burgley into the mix clearly promises further installemnts of the series.
To date, there are now six installements recounting Shardlake’ s adventures, starting with Dissolution, first published in 2003. Here we are introduced to Matthew Shardlake when in 1537 he gets a personal commission from none other than Thomas Cromwell to visit a Suffolk Monastery slated for Dissolution, where a royal inspector has been murdered, and in pretty horrific circumstances at that. Shardlake, accompanied by his assistant Mark, soon finds himself investigating not just the recent murder of the Royal Inspector, but also a series of historic murders. The story unfolds at a fair pace, but what makes Dissolution stand out is Sansom’s investment into the characterisation of his sleuth. The author spends a fair amount of time on setting out the moral stock of Matthew Shardlake, bachelor, Lincolnshire lawyer, reformer, and hunchback, with integrity and a keen sense of justice. In many ways, Dissolution’s main purpose almost appears to set up the story arc for the subsequent instalments of the series, introducing not just the character of Shardlake himself but a host of supporting figures who weave in and out of the later stories. Some of these characters, such as Thomas Cromwell, are historical, while others, most notably the ex-monk-turned-pharmacist-turned-doctor, Brother Guy Malton, are fictional. Sansom’s skill lies in making these characters mesh in a believable and beautifully researched narrative that in the case of Dissolution quickly becomes (trademark) claustrophobic and suffocating, casting a long shadow on future instalments. Its a cracking first outing for Shardlake, and a superb opening for the series. Sansom then followed up on Dissolution with the 2004 Dark Fire. Shardlake’s character is now firmly established and securely set up in Cromwell’s London, several years have passed since the events of Dissolution, we have reached 1540, and what had been a prosperous few years for Shardlake now becomes overshadowed by his political alliance with Cromwell, whose fall from grace looks imminent. While the book stands on its own, knowing Shardlake’s back story adds and enhances the reader’s engagement with a dual mystery, where one strand of the narrative is overtly concerned with the lawyer’s professional duties, acting as legal counsel to a young girl accused of murder, while a second storyline unfolds that intertwines with the girl’s case. As in Dissolution, Sansom proves himself to be a master at creating an atmosphere that becomes morbid, claustrophobic and even macabre in places, putting his sleuth, and his new side kick, Jack Barak, through their paces, testing again and again the moral compass of his protagonist. The story is beautifully told, and solidly anchored in Tudor London, with Sansom grounding his sleuth in a plethora of detail. Shardlake solves his case and gains himself a new assistant, Jack Barak, who becomes Robin to his Batman, at the same time as acquiring a whole host of long- term enemies. In Shardlake’s cases, the question of what is ‘justice’ becomes increasingly a push and pull between the morality and integrity of the sleuth and how he reacts to a legal, religious and political establishment where boundaries are fluid and priorities shift.
By the third instalment, Sovereign (2006), Sansom is in his stride and Shardlake is despatched to new surroundings, York, post- Pilgrimage of Grace (1541), and at its most unsettled. York is preparing for the Royal Progress of King Henry VIII and his new Queen, Catherine Howard, with Shardlake himself tasked to provide both legal assistance for the Progress as well as taking care of a political prisoner who needs to be brought safely to the Tower of London for further investigation (and inevitable slow and painful death). Sansom is superb in setting out a series of complex and intertwined story lines, from Jack Barak’s courtship of one of Queen Catherine’s staff (Tamasin) to Shardlake’s investigations into the murder of a master glazier, to a plot that challenges the legitimacy of the Tudor succession, revelling in the old Lancastrian/Yorkist debates of the War of the Roses. The story gains pace and urgency as Queen Catherine Howard’s position in court becomes untenable, ultimately leading to her execution and to a spell in the Tower for Shardlake himself. Shardlake emerges from his involvement in politics increasingly scarred, and personally damaged, but his moral integrity remains intact.
One of the ways in which C.J. Sansom keeps his series fresh, is in frequently reconfiguring the external landscape for his protagonist. Shardlake needs patronage to survive – and thrive- as a lawyer in Tudor England, and his first, and most important patron, is Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell and Shardlake share an interest in religious reform, and with the Fall of Cromwell, it is the circle of reformers that continue to seek Shardlake out.
In Revelation (2008) we meet Lady Latimer, Katherine Parr, who becomes the target of a religious fanaticist who uses the text of Revelations as a blueprint for murder. Revelations is a closely crafted, frantic excursion into madness, delusion and fear, one of the most compelling page turners imaginable. One of the interesting themes that starts to be woven into the fabric of the books is gender and politics. Sansom’s introduction of Katherine Parr into the recurring cast of characters throws the gender balance of the books off kilter, a theme also pursued in some of the subsidiary plots, especially the relationship between Jack Barak and his wife Tamasin. Gender, politics and religion interweave, pushing and challenging each of the characters we have known for several books now, and while some are being corrupted and twisted (notably Shardlake’s nemesis, Privy Councillor Richard Rich and fellow barrister Stephen Bealknap), others remain loyal to their values, most notable the ex-Benedictine doctor-phramacist-outsider-other Guy Malton.
In Heartstone, my personal favourite in the series, Sansom continues reflecting on the themes of madness, and increasingly plays with the emotional landscape that characterises other writings such as Dominion; in Heartstone, madness and paranoia and a persecution phobia tip at least one character’s mental health over the edge while Shardlake himself increasingly suffers from a growing sense of isolation and concerns about his morality sidelining him from the centre of the action. Shardlake though, unlikely action hero as he would seem to be, given his physical disability, seeks redemption in action. He increasingly struggles with definitions of what is ‘justice’, which in Heartstone is most beautifully played out in a super scene that introduces Princess Elizabeth Tudor, the future Elizabeth I, to the cast of characters (and hints very strongly at future patronage from Elizabeth herself, a strand taken up again in Lamentation). The main plot for Heartstone though focuses on the case of a ward, Hugh Curtys, and a land dispute near Southampton, which means that Shardlake and Barak find themselves at Southampton as the King’s fleet, led by the magnificednt Mary Rose, assembles to repulse an imminent threat of a French invasion. The madness of the political action mirrors the off-kilter insanity of Shardlake’s property case. Not surprisingly, a case of mistaken identity, cross dressing, deceit and greed leads to a cathartic finale when literally everything- including Shardlake who finds himself on board the Mary Rose, goes down, tilts, turns upside down and eventually rights itself, but not necessarily in the way one would have expected.
Sansom as a writer is at the top of his game, and Lamentation, ostensibly about Katherine Parr’s Lamentations of a Sinner, reflects instead about the political and power shifts that accompany the end of an era, the passing of Henry VIII and the questions surrounding the legacy of his reign. Lamentation is about the power politics of the Court, and the investm,ent of the powerful into staying in power and seeking and pursuing power at all means. Sansom hasd shown in Dominion what a political dystopia looks like, so the darkness of these reflections comes as no surprise to his readers. We care about Shardlake though, bruised, battered, but still standing- and Book 7 in the series cant come fast enough. Or, rather, Sansom needs to take as long as he needs to produce a book of a quality and complexity to match his first six in the series…..
There are plenty of historical who-dunnits- Sansom does not write for a crowded market, he writes in a niche of his own.More please…..