Set in Tudor England, The Shardlake Series by CJ Sansom is a series of (currently) 7 books featuring the lawyer Matthew Shardlake and a cast of both real and fictional characters. Packed with mystery, murder and intrigue and a wealth of fascinating historical insights, I admit I have become a bit obsessed. Forget taxing literary fiction, here is your new guilty pleasure.
The first book, Dissolution, is set in the year 1537. Henry VIII has been on the throne for nearly three decades and has declared himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, thereby setting in train revolutionary changes in the religious landscape of the country. The monasteries that have held so much power for hundreds of years are being dissolved, a spirit of Reform is in the air, and this brings with it enormous fear, distrust and persecution.
One of Henry’s most prominent Reformers is Sir Thomas Cromwell who has a network of spies, informers and lawyers to do his dirty work. One of them is Matthew Shardlake of Lincoln’s Inn and in this first book he sets forth (reluctantly) to investigate the horrific murder of one of Cromwell’s commissioners in a Kent monastery.
As in all the books in the series, there is never just one murder, and the investigation is never straightforward. The fiercely intelligent Shardlake is a man of integrity who just wants a quiet life, but he is known for his cleverness, honesty and persistence, so despite his wish to be left with his books and his dull property law disputes he is continually drawn into labyrinthine and dangerous cases. Of course he always gets to the bottom of whatever investigation he is embroiled in:
‘There is, as always, an answer if you look hard enough.’
Each book in the series sees Shardlake and his trusty assistant facing a new assignment. Over the course of a decade they find themselves variously searching for the formula of the legendary Greek fire; tracking down secret papers relating to the succession of the royal family; investigating Papist conspiracies, following serial killers and protecting the weak from danger. This work takes them from London to the great Cathedral cities of England, to castles, royal chambers, dungeons, docks and battlefields, all against a backdrop of the momentous events of the time, including the beheading of Anne Boleyn, the sinking of the Mary Rose and Robert Kett’s peasant rebellion.
CJ Sansom takes care to explain the recent historical past and the political present so as a reader you feel fully immersed in the 16th century world. Despite the sometimes clichéd prose (there are rather too many ‘wry smiles’, ‘hard looks’ and people ‘shaken to the core’ for me – surprising given the author’s brilliant and unrelated Winter in Madrid) the stories are peppered with regional vernacular and vivid detail. And while the books are narrated by Shardlake himself – so you know he survives his many brushes with death – the stories are genuinely page-turning.
Shardlake is an appealing character and a worthy addition to the panoply of well-known literary detectives. Modest and bookish, he has a physical weakness – he is a ‘crookback’; and an emotional vulnerability – a tendency to fall for unsuitable women. Because of this he is taunted by cruel jibes, suffers terribly from backache, and often feels lonely.
He is in many ways a modern hero – he hates injustice and any kind of abuse of power and he feels sorry for the poor and downtrodden. For me it is his humanity and bravery (and the gripping plots) that have made me download one book after another. The most recent book in the series, Tombland, sees him older and more infirm so I’m worried he may not survive many more dangerous adventures. I’ll just have to start again at the beginning.
The Shardlake Series by CJ Sansom is published by Pan, 480 pages.