Sansom’s latest Shardlake novel is a peach of delight. I like an author who evolves his or her writing style of the course of a series. In fact, in this case, I’d almost suspect Sansom’s has either been reading or conversing with one Susanna Gregory because Matthew Shardlake is getting closer and closer to Thomas Chaloner. For this reviewer , in that comparison, this is the highest accolade as Gregory is the finest current historical murder mystery writer publishing today; Sansom is about to join her on the summit. Just as Gregory has us truly believe we are in a post-Commonwealth environment through the depth of both place and characterisation, so Sansom writes in pellucid prose having us not just see, but smell, taste, feel what it is like to reside in Tudor London.
Layered on top of this is set of mysteries wrapped around credible actions based on that most delightful of literary motives – paranoia. When suspicion abounds, then myth, flights of fancy, theories and conspiracies can soar freely to confound, bemuse and bedazzle the reader. The plot is wickedly labyrinthine, the interactions tenderly human, painfully harsh. Sansom, like Gregory, draws us from empathy into sympathy with deft strokes of a pen so that we agree with Shardlake, wince as he does, frown in agreement, suffer in fear at a misfortune that is both reader and character.
This novel is set during the final months of King Henry VIII Tudor’s reign over England. A year after the foundering of the Mary Rose, Shardlake approaches the winter of 1546 to find himself embroiled in a sibling legal case. It is a dispute smothered in a bitterness that would fit into a Dickens novel with characters mired in their own personal ‘Jarndyce v Jarndyce’. In this case the mendacious bequest is firmly plastered onto the wall of their Bleak House so Matthew finds himself reluctantly representing Mistress Slanning. At the same time he is secretly summoned to meet with Catherine Parr, sixth and last queen of Henry Tudor to help locate a missing “Lamentation” that she has penned and lost. It is a pamphlet she believes to be incendiary to the point of condemning her to execution. With her Uncle she requests our lawyer-sleuth set to and locate its current whereabouts after it was traced to the house of possible Sacramentarians and Anabaptists who were subsequently murdered. It is a task Matthew knows he should not get involved in but the flame of admiration he has for her makes his heart rather than his head direct his destiny.
Subterfuge; political scheming; run-ins with his old foe, Sir Richard Rich; a new assistant – Nicolas Overton; dealing with shady servants; running the violent gamut of London’s alleys for the likes of Daniels, Cardmaker and Stice; spending more time in the Tower; witnessing a burning at the stake; dragging Barak and Tamsin into a danger that always has consequences…such is the life of Matthew Shardlake. A life in which his friend Guy sadly observes that “we are all caged…in the prison of this earthly world.”
This is a novel that deserves recognition in the sometimes mediocre world of historical mystery books. Sansom is as good as Gregory, no bones about it.