Historical novels are hot right now, and no wonder, with novels like C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mystery series on offer. I, gulp, actually got the most recent one, Heartstone, in the signed British edition from the Poisoned Pen so I wouldn’t have to wait a year for it to come out on this side of the ocean. It wasn’t cheap. But it was worth it.
The series opens in London in 1537, where Matthew is an attorney. He has a hunchback, which renders him odious and unlucky to his fellow men, as well as ineligible to all of the beautiful women with whom he falls in love. He is honest and able and intelligent, but his strongest — and his enemies would say, his most unfortunate — trait is his dogged determination to get to the truth of every wrong-doing brought to his attention, and to see it set right, no matter how many of the nobility it pisses off. And it pisses off many of them, indeed, all the way up to King Henry VIII, he of many wives.
Some of the wives have at least walk-on parts in these novels, but what is even more interesting is the effect that Henry’s, ah, acquisition and subsequent relinquishment of so many wives had on the English government and the people, which Sansom renders in uncomfortable and sometimes excruciating detail. The greed of the “new men” to grab everything they can get from every new order smells just as bad as the ordure in the street. The period detail makes these seriously enjoyable you-are-there books.
In the first novel, Dissolution, one of Cromwell’s commissioners has been murdered in the commission of the dissolution of the Monastery of St. Donatus, and Matthew journeys to Scarnsea to investigate. There he meets Guy, a soon-to-be ex-monk who moves to London and becomes Matthew’s private medical examiner in future novels.
In Dark Fire, Cromwell sets Matthew to track down the formula for Greek fire so King Henry may lay waste to the French, with whom he is perennially and disastrously at war. Jack Barak makes his debut, first as Cromwell’s man and then as Matthew’s clerk.
In Sovereign, Henry goes on progress to York with fifth wife, Catharine Howard, there to put down thoughts of rebellion in his uppity northern subjects, all of whom live far too near the Scots for his taste. Matthew, drawn yet again against his will (so he says) into political intrigue, this time by Archbishop Cranmer, investigates the case of a papist conspirator, which takes him into the barbaric north in Henry’s train.
By Revelation, Henry’s on his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, and Matthew, Guy and Jack are on the trail of what may be a serial killer. The case takes them into the Bedlam, a hospital for the insane where everything is for sale that makes today’s asylums look a lot better by comparison.
In the fifth and most recent novel in the series, Heartstone, Queen Catherine hires Matthew to look into alleged wrongs against a young ward in the care of one of Henry’s “new men,” and he uses the opportunity to look into the history of a woman he met in the Bedlam in the previous novel. The Lady Elizabeth has a scene and a brief but fascinating literary discussion with Matthew over a recently published book on archery that not only sets up a relationship for future novels (I hope, I hope), but is also key to the solution of the mystery. The climax is a truly harrowing scene on board none other than the Mary Rose. (The British edition, so you know, is a beautifully produced book, with end maps in color, black-and-white maps beginning each part, and even a red ribbon bookmark sewn into the spine.)
Sansom includes an historical note at the end of each novel with additional details of the place and time and the people who lived then, which adds to the general feeling of traveling through time. The only complaint I have is that people are always saying something or smiling “sadly.” And I can live with that.