I stumbled across C.J. Sansom’s Tudor mystery novels quite by accident. Books 2, 3, and 4 were sitting innocently on the shelf of the cottage I was staying at in Prince Edward Island last week — and suddenly I was whiling away my spare time reading (reading is what vacation is for, isn’t it?). Over the week I chomped my way through Dark Fire and most of Sovereign, both of which are 500+ pages.
I was delighted with the concept of the novels (I hadn’t heard of them before,
though the reason escapes me). Most of the historical fiction I’ve read — which frankly isn’t much to brag about. I generally try to avoid it unless it has a good rep — directly concerned one or more of Henry VIII’s wives. It was all glitz and glam, gorgeous dresses and unrequited love, and the occasional beheading of a queen.
Not the Shardlake novels, no sir. They take the romanticist’s idea of Tudor London, turn it on its head, and grind it into a pile of horse manure. They’re gritty, grimy, but in a delightful way. They take the reader down to the poorest of London’s beggars, the filth lining the streets, the monster Henry became in his older years…It’s disgusting, but extremely real and utterly believable.
The real star is not the realism, however. It’s poor Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer of Lincoln Inn. While I haven’t read the first of the series, Dissolution, (on my to-read list) what I have read about Shardlake endears me to him. He’s not a young, pompous lover of adventure; he’s middle-aged, has suffered a life time of mockery, and only has a desperate wish to live a quiet life in court.
But C.J. Sansom has him chasing crazed serial killers, being tortured, facing rejection from the few women he dared to hope for, killing villains, and doing all he can to make his protagonist lose his faith, his physical well-being, and (seemingly) his mind. This might make Shardlake seem like a hard rock of a man, but he’s a gentle soul, unsure of himself, high in his morals, and rightly wary of the deadly politics of Henry VIII’s dangerous court.
And what’s a detective without his side kick? Enter Jack Barak. We first meet him in Book 2, Dark Fire, when his master Cromwell forces him to assist Shardlake in finding a rare weapon of mass destruction. The two clash at first, for Barak is rough and ill-mannered, but in such a way that he immediately became my favourite character. By the time they close the case, Cromwell has fallen from favour — headless — and Barak agrees to stay on as Shardlake’s clerk. Their rather strange friendship is perhaps the greatest theme over the novels.
For some reason or another, I pictured Barak as Madmartigan (Val Kilmer)
from the 1988 movie Willow. Devilishly handsome and rough all over, but with a good heart, Jack Barak easily made up for slow pieces of the Dark Fire and Sovereign, and I felt fondly frustrated at his prideful refusal to patch up his problems with his spirited wife Tamasin in Revelation. Their love story in Sovereign was a subplot, but a golden one.
I’m of the opinion that these books aren’t for everyone. They deal quite heavily with the religious changes of the day (the power ping-ponging back and forth between conservatives and radicals) and have characters that might require background knowledge on to completely comprehend or appreciate. Little scenes are also thrown in, seemingly for my own pleasure, such as an episode in Sovereign where the Lady Rochford is demanding the keys for another exit for Queen Catherine Howard in case there would ever be a fire. This scene does play a larger role later, but if you don’t know your history this might seem like an annoying distraction from the person Shardlake is actually trying to find.
Aside from the limiting of target audience, there were a dreadful number of editing errors, mainly in Sovereign, that caught my attention. Missing periods, commas, quotation marks… This isn’t unusual, but there was a sentence where a British ‘pound’ sign was plopped in the middle of a word. Also, the author changed Archbishop Cranmer’s eye colour between books. Oops! Despite these errors, my interest in the plot was not hindered, though I’m sure others might find it infuriating and impossible to read.
If you’re a Tudor junkie, like me, then the other thing you’ll notice is the names. You know as well as I how common names were. Look at how many Thomases there were (Wyatt, Cranmer, Cromwell, Wolsey, Seymour…you get my point). In the Shardlake novels there is scarce a repeat name, aside from the ones the author couldn’t change (Cromwell, Cranmer, Seymour). Only one Joan, one Ellen, one Margaret, one Dorothy, one Abigail. I see what the author was trying to do, but for me it was a little obvious — especially as I doubt Tamasin is a Tudor name — and sucked a smidgen of the realism away.
Out of the three books I’ve read over the last two weeks, I don’t think I could choose a favourite. Dark Fire was gruesome with a sick-minded killer, which held intrigue for me, but was thick and slow in parts. Sovereign was lacking a sadistic flare, but Shardlake can only take so much, right? I enjoyed a slightly more domestic flavour as Barak meets the flighty and wilful Tamasin and Shardlake begins his friendship with the elderly Master Wrenne. Revelation was definitely eery, but it was only until page 486 that I began to panic because I had no idea who the killer was and what he might do next. All three books each had similar plots — a murderer on the loose, a client of Shardlake’s that had to do with a mental illness, and an order from a high-standing Tudor figure.
So you see how Shardlake has wormed his way into my heart. I think part of it is the fact that he’s not a good-looking twentysomething with a love interest. He’s a minority with an interest in law and an awful habit of becoming mixed with dangerous court politics (despite his pleas at the end of each novel to live a quiet life).
I need to get my hands on Book 1 and 5 (Dissolution and Heartstone) now…