Book 1 of the “Shardlake” series.
Continuing a recent trend for historical based crime thriller, C.J. Sansom has chosen the turmoil of Henry VIII’s reformation to start his series about the criminal investigations of a lawyer named Matthew Shardlake. Set in 1536, just before the dissolution of the monasteries, Shardlake is sent by Thomas Cromwell to the (fictional) abbey of Scarnsea to investigate the murder of a commissioner who was there evaluating the monastery’s properties. Shardlake is pro-reform and doesn’t take too kindly to being sent. The narrative often betrays the sense of revulsion that Shardlake feels at what the monasteries have become, while at the same time attempting to stir up sympathy for the plight of their eventual fate. The subject is delicately handled and gives us something to ponder regardless of how knowledgeable people are of the period, and how they might feel about Henry VIII reformation.
Sansom strikes a good balance between historical narrative and entertaining fiction, giving it a depth that a lot of historical crime fiction often lacks. There is a lot of depth to the story as layers and sub-plots are uncovered takes us one step closer to the end, or off in another direction.
Some of the characters are cliché to both historical fiction and crime thriller: A surprisingly emancipated 16th century woman, a red herring suspect and a cast of characters where most of them are lying about something. This is the Agatha Christie formula and at times to somebody like me who isn’t particularly a crime thriller fan, it feels a little stale. A great start to a superb series nonetheless.