Posted by Frank Burns
A first novel from the historian C.J.Sansom, this was an attempt to break into that growing genre of historical mystery, which uses a period of history (usually one of great change and turmoil) as the setting for some sleuthing. This episode (the first with several sequels) is set in the early years of the English Reformation, just after the execution of Anne Boleyn, and the transition from a Rome-dominated country to one whose church is now headed up by the reigning monarch, Henry VIII. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is one of those historical sleuths who (like many in the genre) is given a case to solve on which much depends.
In the period of the dissolution of the monasteries and religious houses, he is sent by Thomas Cromwell to investigate the murder of one of his commissioners, who had been dispatched to negotiate the closure of a monastery in Sussex. Shardlake, however, does not fit the usual profile of the typical sleuth. Far from being a swashbuckling equivalent of his modern counterpart, he is a small-time hunchback lawyer of puny stature and little presence, whose every action is guided by his desire to stay in the favour of Cromwell, who wields the power of life and death over anyone who does not further the aims of the new regime.
I have expressed my ambivalence about historical fiction in another review, but the attempt to create a Sherlock Holmes in Tudor times is not entirely convincing. It bears all the hallmarks of a specifically modern literary genre in a time shift. Despite his unprepossessing physical characteristics, Shardlake is simply a modern sleuth dressed in 16th century robes, and if such a character existed in 1536, would he have gone about his business the way that he did? I doubt it. However, the novel is set in the period of dissolution and for that, if nothing else, it is a worthy read for its historical insight.
This was a World Book Night selection in 2011 which fell into my hands because I was given it by a friend. Long live the spirit of giving!!