Absorbing Historical Mystery

I first discovered the work of the author C.J. Sansom about a year ago. I was given one of his books (Revelation), and was about half-way through it when I realised that I really had to read all the others in the series. At my age it is really quite exciting to discover a new favourite author.

There are so far five books in the Shardlake series of novels, in order they are: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation and Heartstone. They cover the experiences of lawyer Matthew Shardlake in solving a series of murder cases, set against the background of the corrupt politics of the reign of Henry VIII.

They are very far from being average, run-of-the-mill crime fiction (even average, run-of-the-mill historical crime fiction). There are two main features that distinguish these books for me.

Firstly the character of Shardlake himself is immensely sympathetic. As a character he is flawed and vulnerable, yet is a man in possession an unerring moral compass, often to his own detriment. He has a gift for making powerful enemies (and a few friends).

Secondly, C.J. Sansom succeeds in painting a compelling portrait of life in Tudor England, and corrupt Tudor politics in particular. The intimate detail of everyday life as well the big picture seems convincingly portrayed. It feels like a real world inhabited by real people.

Added to which, each novel delivers a satisfying murder mystery. There are real clues in the text, and you can play the game of guessing the murderer if that is your thing. The eventual solution does actually make sense.

The first novel in the series (Dissolution), is set after the execution of Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn and, as its title suggests, deals with the issue of the dissolution of the monasteries. The cynical land-grabbing which ensued among the rich and powerful remains a theme throughout the series.

Real historical events are woven throughout the series, so Dark Fire covers the fall of from power of Thomas Cromwell, Sovereign deals with the collapse of Henry’s marriage to Catherine Howard, Revelation is set at the time of his marriage to Catherine Parr. The title is taken from the biblical Book of Revelation, and concerns a serial killer inspired by that work.

The final book (Heartstone) is set at the time of the sinking of the Mary Rose, so very near the end of Henry’s reign. If there is another in the series – and I am very much hoping there will be – it will presumably be set after his death.

If you are intending to read these books it probably is best to start at the beginning of the series (though admittedly I did not)

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