When you see the name of King Henry VIII, what’s the image that comes to your mind? One in which the monarch has the physique and appearance of a model (as portrayed by Jonathan Rhys in the TV series The Tudors)?
Or one of an athletic king with steely eyes as played by Damien Lewis in the BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Or the way that Henry himself wanted to be portrayed; A man of authority who, even when he’s not kitted out in full royal regalia exudes power. One of the most famous of contemporary portraits shows him directly facing the viewer, legs firmly planted apart and arms akimbo to emphasise his powerful physique. The message is clear: don’t even think of messing around with me.
In C.J Sansom’s historical series featuring a ‘detective’ lawyer, Shardlake, the man of law has learned over the years to fear his encounters with the King and the powerful men who surround him. Lamentation, the latest episode in the series, sees Shardlake once again become embroiled in the kind of political intrigue that could easily cost him his head. This time it’s the King’s wife Katherine who needs his help when a book of spiritual reflections she has written is stolen from her bedroom. In the religious turmoil of the 1540s, this book could incite even further discord in the land if it is published. Katherine’s own safety as risk. For the King;s own wife to write such a text without his knowledge could be considered as treason. Shardlake has a soft spot for the queen so accepts her plea to find the book before the King discovers what’s happened.
What ensues is a romp around London, from its leafy Inns of Court and the splendour of its royal palaces to the seedy streets of the poorer quarters as Shardlake tries to discover who is behind the theft and why. It brings him into personal danger with sword fights and a spell in the dreaded dungeons of The Tower. It’s all very entertaining if somewhat improbable on many occasions —although Shardlake suffers from his physical deformity and often refers to his aching back, the man still seems to have an extraordinary level of stamina, always dashing about on horse or foot for hours.
That’s really a minor point in a novel that otherwise exudes authenticity. Sansom’s evocation of the period always feels authoritative and sure (he even provides extensive notes at the back of the book to substantiate his interpretation.) In Lamentation he plunges us into a time when the King’s health is a matter for concern though he and his courtiers go to great lengths to keep up a pretence in his public engagements that all is well. Shardlake however stumbles upon some scenes within the inner sanctum of the palace that show the extent to which this once powerful man has declined. In a quiet courtyard he sees the King propped up by two helpers shuffle along the path:
The man I saw now was the very wreck of a human being. His huge legs, made larger still by swathes of bandages, were splayed out like a gigantic child’s as he took each slow and painful step. Every movement sent his immense body wobbling and juddering beneath his caftan. His face was great mess of fat, the little mouth and tiny eyes almost hidden in its folds, the once beaky nose full and fleshy.
Later he sees Henry winched up to his stateroom, his immense body and folds of fat strapped into a wheelchair.
As shocked as Shardlake is, he knows well that to merely comment on the King’s health let alone reveal the truth, would be treasonable.
This is an age where lips must be kept shut if you fear for your life. One unguarded comment could lead to a charge of heresy. The tone is set within the first few pages of the novel where Shardlake is despatched, reluctantly to witness the burning alive of a heretic.
There was a smell of smoke around Smithfield now as well as the stink of the crowd and of something else, familiar from the kitchen: the smell of roasting meat. Against my will I looked again at the stakes. The flames had reached higher: the victims lower bodies were blackened, white bone showing through here and there. their upper parts red with blood as the flames licked at them.
Shardlake must navigate this atmosphere of fear and contend with the King’s circle of unscrupulous advisers to achieve his mission. By the end he yearns for a quieter life in which he becomes a lawyer in a provincial town far from the corruption of the capital and the machinations of the court. But Shardlake is ever a sucker for the ladies and how can he resist when he is offered a new role, as adviser to the Princess Elizabeth. And thus, very neatly, Sansom sets us up for another chapter in Shardlake’s life and – thankfully – a few more novels to look forward to reading.
My reviews of other novels within the series can be found via the links below.
How do you judge the size of the knife used to kill the man whose body you’ve just found face down in a haystack? Today’s investigators have an easy task of it with oodles of NCIS-style gizmos at their disposal. But for their twelfth-century predecessors, detection was rather more of a hands-on affair − you simply stuck your thumb in the wound to see how deep you could go. It’s a bit messy clearly and you have to also put up with the rather to the sickening sucking sound made when you pull your thumb out again.
This insight— and many others — into life in England under King Richard (aka The Lionheart) is the main appeal of the Crowner John series of books by Bernard Knight. Knight is a qualified barrister and was one of the foremost pathologists in the UK during the 1970s and 80s, the man involved in many of the high profile cases of those decades from and was involved in many high profile cases such as Fred and Rose West, and the child killer, Mary Bell.which means the detection elements of his novels are firmly grounded in reality.
In Crowner John (the title of Crowner is the origin of the modern day term Coroner), Knight has created a compelling character of Sir John de Wolfe. Wolfe is a former crusader who is now the Keeper of the Pleas of the King’s Crown, based in the city of Exeter with a remit to investigate suspicious deaths and hold inquests. He presents a foreboding figure as he strides through Exeter dressed in his habitual black or grey and with a persistent scowl on his face.
He has plenty to scowl about: his wife is fat and ugly and her brother the Sheriff (who is also supposed to keep law and order locally) is not only lazy and greedy, he’s probably corrupt. Little wonder therefore that John seeks solace in the arms of a local inn keeper and in the close companionship of his clerk and his retainer.
I’ve read or listened to four of the 15 novels in the series – most recently The Figure of Hate published in 2005 in which Crowner John investigates the murder of a local manor lord and his son. The plot is ok but it’s the window Knight shines on the daily life and practices of the twelfth century that provide the most fascinating for me. This is world in which very few people beyond the clergy could read or write (even Sir John struggles through Latin lessons); where beds were extremely rare and beer was a much safer drink than water. In The Figure of Hate, we get some interesting background on the origin of the jousting tournament, the weaponry and and a good sense of just how fit the jousting men must have been to fight in heavy protective armour astride a fast moving horse.
Dont expect any great literary flair in the writing style. That’s not Knight’s forte. In fact he can be overly repetitive with some detail (we get told at least four times in The Figure of Hate that John and his mistress innkeeper whisper their sweet nothings in the Welsh language). The Crowner John series isn’t anywhere as good as C J Sansom’s Shardlake series but they are an entertaining read nevertheless.
The second of C J Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series sees the hunchback lawyer summoned once again to the aid of Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell. It’s 1540. London is sweating uncomfortably in an intense heatwave, the King is in pursuit of yet another bride more to his taste than Anne of Cleves and Cromwells hold on power looks increasingly precarious as his enemies circle and plot. He can keep them at bay and retain Henry’s favour if he can get his hands on a mysterious new weapon called Dark Fire or Greek Fire that could be a deciding factor if the French decide to wage war on Henry. Problem is, Dark Fire seems in short supply and the men who developed the formula have been murdered. Cromwell has only 12 days to find the formula and stage a demonstration for his royal master. There is only one man he can trust take on this quest, Shardlake.
It’s three years since Shardlake was last pressed into service of the state, an experience that left him questioning his faith and his belief in religious reform. He’s much happier doing battle with the law on behalf of his clients than getting embroiled in political affairs. He has a particularly tough case on his hands already, defending Elizabeth Wentworth, young girl accused of murdering her cousin by throwing him down a well. Time is running out – if Shardlake can’t prove her innocence in the next 12 days, she will go to the gallows. But what Cromwell wants, Cromwell gets.
The two plot lines combine into an intricate maze which sees Shardlake and his new assistant Jack Barak criss cross London, visiting stinking prison dungeons, the perfumed salons of the society elite and the whorehouses of Shoreditch in a series of chases and adventures that become increasingly dangerous. Shardlake complains of the pain he endures from his infirmity, but it doesn’t stop him clambering up walls, carrying women from burning buildings and throwing off would-be assailants. The pace is rapid, the list of potential villains lengthy and the solution satisfyingly unclear until the final pages.
Sansom’s writing can be clunky at times but what makes amends for this is the introduction of Barak as Shardlake’s assistant. Like all good side kicks he exists to do the grunt work, like clambering down wells at dead of night or trawling the brothels and taverns for would be assassins and to act as a straight man when the brilliant detective needs to test a theory. Barak’s uncouth behaviour and propensity to be rude to anyone in authority, make him a great foil for Shardlake’s more considered, temperate nature. Shardlake’s own character is more finely tuned in Dark Fire. His desire to seek justice for the common man shown in Dissolution is still in evidence but now combines with his passion to expose the type of corruption that preys on the defenceless poor. We also get to see another side to Shardlake as he forms an affection a woman whose wealth and family status put her well above that of a lowly lawyer. Does she return his affection or is she really trying to hoodwink him as Barak maintains? Sansom keeps his readers guessing on this point as on so much else in a novel that is an even more enjoyable read than Dissolution.
Dissolution plunges us into the turmoil of a sixteenth-century England whose citizens fear for their lives unless they adhere to the country’s newly proscribed form of faith. Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell is hell bent on ensuring Catholicism is eradicated; dissolving the monasteries, evicting its cloistered inhabitants and selling the land and assets to loyal supporters of his master King Henry VIII. Those who resist and speak out against the new order find themselves imprisoned in the Tower of London and tortured or executed.
The murder of a Royal Commissioner while on a mission to root out corruption at a monastery in Kent , threatens to disrupt all of Cromwell’s plans. He needs the perpetrator found quickly and secretly — and he knows just the man to do the job. His choice — Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of the Reformation. Shardlake and his young relative Mark Poer are despatched to the south coast to investigate the murder.
As in all good murder mystery stories, the investigators quickly learn almost everyone has a secret and a motive. Hidden passages; false trails; multiple corpses; near death experiences; fights and escapes: all the standard components of the genre are in this book. What lifts Dissolution well above the usual fare is the quality of Sansom’s writing with its strong sense of place and atmosphere and an intriguing, multi-dimensional protagonist.
Sansom perfectly evokes the desolation and isolation of the monastery’s setting on the edge of the Weald with its treacherous currents that only smugglers and a few inhabitants dare cross. The heavy snow which falls as Shardlake arrives at the monastery acts as a metaphoric cloak through which he must penetrate to find the killer.
But Shardlake uncovers more than the answer to the crime. What he discovers creates deep unease within himself about Cromwell’s motives and challenges his beliefs about the new future for his country once Reform is fully enacted. By the time the book ends, his faith in humanity is damaged and his idealism has given way to an acute awareness of the corruption all around him.
…. there is nowhere safe in the world now, nothing certain. …. The Bible says God made man in his image but I think we make and remake him in whatever happens to suit our shifting needs. I wonder if he knows or cares. All is dissolving.
Dissolution is the first in a series of books featuring Shardlake. I will definitely return for more of this intriguing character.
Want to know more?
C J Sansom practiced as a lawyer but gave up his practice to write full time. His first novel, Dissolution was published in 2003. There are four other titles in the Shardlake series plus A Winter in Madrid, a mystery set in post-Civil War Spain and most recently (2012) Dominion, a World War 2 thriller
His website can be found here
The Guardian newspaper has an interesting article in which Sansom talks about his Shardlake series.
The only part of Little Women that struck a chord with me was Joe’s lament that ”Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without any presents”. Substitute the word ‘books’ for ‘presents’ and you’d have my sentiments expressed exactly. Giving and receiving books is a fundamental part of Christmas for me, starting with the shiny new Bunty or Jackie annual I looked forward to all year when I was a very young teenager.
This year I asked Santa kindly for a few novels that are either on my Classics Club challenge or my Booker prize winners challenge. Santa must have decided I already had plenty of Classics to get on with reading so he ignored the appeal for Trollope’s Palliser novels (I can always hint again when my birthday comes around) but I did end up with a few surprises in the shape of the Barnes and Mullan collections of essays.
These are some of the books in the package:
- Richard Burton’s diaries
- The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas
- Pure by Andrew Miller (I loved this when I read it earlier this year)
- A Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
- Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
- Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco
- Restless – William Boyd
- David Copperfield – Dickens
- The Land of Painted Caves – Jean Auel
- Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
- The 100 year old man who fell out of a window – Jonas Jonasson
- Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton
Finally got to finish Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (only taken me 2 months or more). And managed to get the review done Also read one from my Classics Club list – Muriel Spark’s Girls of Slender Means – still means I’ve only read 3 classics this year so will need to get my skates on to complete the 50 in 5 years challenge. The Spark review is here. I’m ending the year by reading C. J Sansom’s Dissolution for my book club meeting in early Jan. First time I’ve read anything by him and so far its a pleasure.