With five ‘Tudor mystery’ novels written to date, CJ Sansom’s historical fiction is firmly established as authentic, intriguing and personable. The author brings to life, with unrelenting realism, Tudor England and the social complexities divested in sixteenth century living. Sansom, an ex-lawyer-cum-historian, cleverly casts Context as a major character in his novels. Scarnsea and York are previous protagonists and the savage hardships of London have been personified into a permanent fixture in each of Sansom’s stories. England’s capital is the home of the author’s unlikely hunchbacked hero, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who is denizen of a time in which every English existence is dictated by Henry VIII’s fluctuating political and religious prescriptions. Deceit, suspicion and paranoia run amuck in all manner of class, from the lowliest of peasants to the Queen of England (whomever she may be), and loyalty is something bought and sold but very rarely earned. Consequently, the conscientious and meticulous Matthew Shardlake struggles to defend the truth with integrity intact.
Heartstone, the newest edition to Sansom’s mystery series, is set during the Queenship of Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, who commissions Matthew Shardlake (on behalf of one of her loyal servants) to investigate the case of a young ward who may have been cheated of his rightful inheritance. As the principled and persistent Shardlake attempts to ferret out the truth, he becomes embroiled in a contention with the infamously corrupt Court of Wards. Shardlake is granted the right to question the ward’s guardian and his family, and so, along with his rough and tough law clerk Barak, embarks on a trip through southern England. Confronted by a family enveloped in sinister secrets buried in a labyrinth of entrenched lies, Shardlake faces an uphill battle for the cause of honesty – as usual.
Meanwhile… in a sub-plot involving Elen Fettiplace, a woman encountered in Sansom’s previous work as an inhabitant of Bedlam, Shardlake takes the opportunity of location to uncover the truth about Ellen’s strange circumstances. The lawyer’s investigation leads him to the discovery of a dreadful cover-up that, as well as resulting in Ellen’s illness and confinement as a lunatic, holds a deadly secret that, if revealed, would undoubtedly result in the rolling of some rather unfortunate but perhaps deserving heads.
Shardlake’s journey leads him in and out of the naval base of Portsmouth, which is Heartstone‘s character of context. With typically detailed precision, Sansom relays a tone of tense frustration as the English Navy readies itself for battle against the French (1544–46), who are making preparations to cross the English Channel. Whilst autocratic Henry raises a massive army of militia, xenophobia exudes its control on society – most likely as a form of propaganda inspired by the King himself in order to will men to war.
The novel takes a while to get going, which is a habit of Sansom’s narrative style, but once the reader is invested Heartstone becomes a titillating page-turner. The book contains a plethora of secrets to be uncovered and bit by very little bit, the truth rears its ugly but captivating head. Events do seem to take rather too long to climax and there is an anticlimactic point in the novel where one wonders whether there will be a pay-off for all the reading time devoted to Shardlake’s case. But the pay-off does come and it is certainly well worth the wait. Although ‘the big reveal’ is delightfully unexpected, for a seasoned Sansom reader, the circumstances encompassing Shardlake’s conclusive discovery are repetitively predictable – the lawyer is bound to find himself in a spot of bother post revelation. Sansom’s plot is intricately woven, so much so that at times circumstances seem a little too contrived. Shardlake’s two cases overlap in ways that are sometimes too convenient for comfort; a point that perhaps merely serves to illustrate the incestuous nature of royal politicking, as well as the dangers thereof.
In Heartstone, Sansom delves deeper into the moralism that motivates Matthew Shardlake’s incessant quest for truth. This time around, Shardlake’s devotion to the meting out of justice seems to come at the expense of many others, including Ellen Fettiplace, who doesn’t wish to resurrect her past, and Sergeant Leacon, who Shardlake uses to further his investigation and who pays a steep price for his involvement. Shardlake’s delving also leads him to incorrect assumptions and the resulting deliverance of some dangerously false accusations. Interestingly, feisty Barak operates as Shardlake’s conscience and voice of reason. Mellowed by the impending birth of his child and softened by Life’s afflictions, Barak no longer operates as the complimentary bite to Shardlake’s quiet inquisitiveness. And Heartstone certainly misses Barak’s sharp edge. With Barak on good behaviour (most of the time), the reader cannot help but wish for some testosterone driven aggression; although Shardlake’s subtle manner is what makes him so effective a lawyer, Richard Rich needs a slap in the head and PLEASE would Shardlake just dish it out! As well as the serpentine Richard Rich (who features in previous novels), Sansom has written some great characters that sit on the periphery of Heartstone’s main storyline: Sergeant Leacon and his band of archers are a treat (the soldiers’ rants regarding Henry’s rubbish decision-making are a sweet sound to the ears); Hugh Curteys is an enigmatic character enveloped in enticing mystery; and a brief introduction to the young Elizabeth is a taster of exciting things to come – here’s hoping.
In relation to Sansom’s other four novels, Heartstone lacks the heart-palpitating, claustrophobic intensity of Dark Fire and Revelation, and much like the other books in the series, reads like a murder mystery BUT without the thriller/horror tone of previous works. The political intrigue, which is so attractive to Sansom’s writing, is there but Shardlake’s disillusionment with Henry VIII and his value system means that Sansom has written his character out of the thick of things. So whilst the Tudor court is still involved, it merely skirts the main issue. Of the book’s 600 odd pages, for maybe 200 of them, hands and eyes will remain glued to the text. But the rest of the time, stopping for a quick cuppa will prove no challenge. It’s a good read; excellent in parts but Sansom has done better.
© Matthew Shardlake illustration by Meredith (deviantART)