In this edition of Spotlight on I want to heap praise upon the wonderful Matthew Shardlake historical mystery series, written by British author C.J. Sansom.
Writing really great historical fiction of any flavour is an enormous challenge. There’s the research, and the plotting, and the added burden of an intriguing mystery if you’re doubling up with a crime element. To my way of thinking, Sansom is one of the best in the business.
One of the great temptations in this genre is to use every last bit of information you’ve gleaned in your research. It takes enormous restraint and finesse to recreate the past for the reader without turning the book into a university lecture. Until I read Dissolution, the first of the Shardlake books, I thought the only person who could get the balance just right was the late, great Dorothy Dunnett. Sansom is her worthy successor.
Dissolution is set in Tudor England, 1537. After years fighting the Pope for release from his failed marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII takes matters into his own hands and declares himself Supreme Head of his kingdom’s church. As a result, the Catholic church of England is under investigation by the feared Chancellor Thomas Cromwell. The aim is to establish justification for the dissolution of the great monasteries and abbeys, a move guaranteed to make Henry rich beyond any wild royal dreams of wealth.
But this attack on the church is not welcomed by everyone … and when one of Cromwell’s commissioners is foully murdered, the Chancellor acts swiftly to uncover the sinners responsible. Which is how lawyer and reformationist Matthew Shardlake embarks upon a new career of criminal investigator … and after this, his life will never be the same again.
These are some of the most readable mystery books I’ve ever encountered. Shardlake is a beautifully nuanced character. The inimitable Henry VIII, and his fearsome henchman Cromwell, are captured boldly yet sensitively. The confronting reality of Tudor England, with its wealth and its miseries, is finely recreated. The crimes Shardlake investigates are rooted in the fabric of Tudor society but are, at the same time, essentially timeless. Because while fashions might change, human nature doesn’t.
So far there are six novels in the Shardlake series. The most recent release, Lamentation, is on my To Be Read pile. I’m really looking forward to diving into it. If you’re looking for something new to read and enjoy historical crime, or anything to do with Tudor England, I think this series will be right for you.