Crime Fiction


C.J. Sansom

The Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom.
Article text
I’ve recently re-discovered a writer of historical crime fiction, on whom I had given up years ago. I like history in all its guises, be it fiction or non-fiction, and I obviously also like crime fiction, hence me being a member of the crime fiction book group.

Some years ago, I tried the first in C J Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series, which is crime fiction set during the reign of Henry VIII. In spite of rave recommendations from several friends I did not in fact take to the first book in the series Dissolution, which was published back in 2001. In fact, it put me off the series entirely for the next 17 years! I found it too long, rather tedious and somewhat convoluted. But recently something made me pick up the fourth book in the series Revelation, from 2008. Maybe I’ve changed, or maybe the books have become better, because I actually really enjoyed it, along with its sequel Heartstone. And I am just tucking into the next one: Lamentation from 2012.

If you don’t know a great deal about the Tudor period, here is a short quote from the preface to Lamentation:
"The details of religious differences in 16th century England may seem unimportant today, but in the 1540s they were, literally, matters of life and death. Henry VIII had rejected the Pope’s supremacy over the English church in 1532-33, but for the rest of his reign he oscillated between keeping traditional Catholic practices and moving towards Protestant ones." For detailed information about the Tudor period there’s lots of information in history books and online.

The main character in the series is the hunchbacked lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, a very clever and tenacious man, who is learning how to tread a very fine path through the political minefields of Thomas Cromwell, and later of Henry VIII. His brief in the first book was, as far as I recall, to oversee, at the instruction of Cromwell, the dissolution of a monastery.

By the time I re-joined the series Cromwell had long since lost his head, along with both Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard; and Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, is leading a somewhat precarious existence on the throne next to him. In both Revelation and Heartstone, Catherine asks Matthew for help with problems that the king must not, under any circumstances, know about. As well as these problems Matthew has cases of his own to deal with, having to navigate the treacherous Tudor period and all its factions and religious pitfalls.

In Lamentation Matthew again has to come to the aid of Catherine, who is about to fall foul herself of the religious persecution of Henry’s last years.

I have taken to Matthew. He’s a quiet, honourable man, very conscientious in his dealings with both the queen and his other clients, and not afraid to put himself in danger. I like his friends and colleagues, too, especially his macho sidekick Jack Barak. They are both well drawn, although Barak seems a tad modern in his outlook for a Tudor man.

I also like the writing style. Not just the Tudor court and its intrigue and machinations, but the whole period is described in vivid and totally believable detail. Although often very brutal details.

All the books are very long and it takes stamina to commit to 600+ pages, but I think they are worth it. I’d have been hard pressed to give the first book more than 1 or 2 Stars, but by now I will gladly give them 4. I shall follow Matthew’s further adventures in the future.

Oundle Library’s Crime Fiction Book Group meets on the third Friday of each month @ 2.30pm. We don’t have a set reading list. Instead, we agree a ‘theme’ for the month and choose the books and authors we want to read within that. It’s free to attend and new members are welcomed.