by C J Sansom
I’ve read several of Sansom’s books already: Revelation, another in the Shardlake series, which was selected by my book group a few years ago; Dominion, a spy story set in the London smog of 1952 in a version of the UK where Halifax succeeded Neville Chamberlain in 1940 and appeased with Germany; and Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War and another book group choice.
Though Shardlake, a lawyer-cum-detective living in Tudor England and working around the edges of the court, is an interesting character and a great device for developing a thriller in a historical setting, I had no burning desire to read another book in the series. But on a visit to Whitby Abbey last weekend with our friends Janette and Alan, Janette mentioned this book and I felt moved to read it. I downloaded the first few chapters as a ‘sample’ to my phone that same evening. The next day I found a copy of £1 at a market stall in York.
The story is gripping. There are a lot of characters, most of them monks and many of them suspects in a murder mystery which becomes more involved as the tale develops. Like Shardlake himself, I began to take an interest in the personalities of the monks – though Shardlake is too much of a ‘reformer’ to feel any sympathy with their disappearing lifestyles.
The story shows clearly how much was at stake for the religious houses during the dissolution; and how lax and corrupt many of the monasteries were. The story, through the character of Shardlake, is not uncritical of Cromwell’s actions. As the story unfolds, Shardlake – at first a loyal servant of Cromwell – becomes disillusioned with the political situation and the ways in which reform is carried out, and – especially – the way that Anne Boleyn’s downfall was orchestrated by Cromwell, and innocent people manipulated and ultimately sent to their deaths.
I will probably read the other Shardlake books at some stage.
By the way – here is a link to a map of the fictional monastery of St Donates at Scarnsea (which I have only just found!).