Dissolution / Dark Fire / Sovereign – C. J. Sansom
These are a trilogy of Tudor-set detective novels which provide a vivid and thrilling glimpse into England during the 1530s and 1540s, during the later part of the reign of Henry VIII. The protagonist (and narrator) of all three novels is lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who suffers from a hunchback and is routinely mocked and feared because of it. He is a staunch Protestant at the beginning of the series, “hot for reform”, though comes to feel more cynical and agnostic about religion – and his monarch – at the end of it.
The first book, Dissolution, is set in winter 1538, in a snowy Kent. Shardlake and his assistant Mark have been sent by Lord Cromwell, Henry’s right-hand man, to ensure the dissolution of a monastery goes smoothly, but the travellers encounter a murder and a desecrated church. Matthew must investigate both incidents as well as scrutinise the abbey’s documents to allocate the property correctly. Although Matthew solves the case, it ends badly, and he vows never to work for Lord Cromwell again.
The second, Dark Fire, is set three years later, in London. Shardlake agrees to defend a girl accused of murdering her younger cousin. A seemingly final sentence of pressing (due to her refusal to plead) is suspended for two weeks by Lord Cromwell, enabling Matthew to investigate. However, Cromwell wants something in return, and that is the secret of “Greek Fire” for the king. Shardlake is beset by all sorts of troubles, involving people trying to kill him, rogue lawyers trying to best him in court, and noblemen and women scheming for their own advantage.
The third, Sovereign, is more embittered and cynical in tone. Shardlake has been sent by Archbishop Cranmer to York to consider petitions to the king on his Progress to the North, as well as to check on the welfare of a prisoner destined for the Tower, not long after a rebellion has been ruthlessly suppressed. Tensions in the city are high, which is largely anti-Tudor and anti-Protestant. A York glazier is killed, muttering some words which seem to indicate that he was part of a conspiracy to oust Henry, and which may cast grave doubt on the king’s title to the throne. Shardlake investigates, though again not without frequent attempts to murder him, or to derail his investigations and other duties by higher powers.
All three books are historical fiction at its best. Sansom doesn’t make too much of an effort to portray Tudor speech in his dialogue, which would be partly incomprehensible to a modern listener, but he conveys mood and degree well. The settings are very clearly evoked, with the sights, smells and attitudes of the times conveying how it must have been like to live in these times. The scheming and conspiracies to gain the favour of the king and to push for all sorts of ideas and programmes is fascinating, with the presence of real-life characters such as Cromwell and the Earl of Norfolk present as well as Sansom’s invented characters. One really gets a sense of the almost absolute power Henry wielded, and, particularly in ‘Sovereign’ of the lengths he and his adherents will go to to maintain his power – as well as the lengths his opponents will go to to rebel against him.
As detective novels, they also work very well, with intertwined plots: generally a straightforward murder investigation along with the political minefield that Shardlake has to tread so warily. Suspicion is cast on all sorts of people during the investigations (though, dare I say it, the solution to the murder in ‘Dark Fire’, although nasty, was not unexpected).
These books are thoroughly recommended.