This is Sansom’s fifth Shardlake novel and by now we are fully relaxed into the characters and vision of England in the twilight years of Henry VIII. It is summer 1545, a year of soaring inflation and industriousness on the part of a king hell-bent on war with France, the sinking of The Mary Rose and the loss of his continental ally and eventually, all English assets in mainland Europe.
Shardlake is travelling to the Solent area at the request of a former servant of Queen Catherine Parr to investigate a case of mistreatment by a ward of one Sir Nicholas Hobbey. While he is there, it allows him to investigate the curious case of Ellen Fettiplace, a patient in Bedlam whom Shardlake has befriended and is so perplexed by her bizarre story that he feels the need to investigate further. It just so happens that she is from the Portsmouth area and whatever happened to her, happened there.
I’m sorry to say that though the length of the previous books felt about right, this fifth novel felt over-written and could have had the best part of 100 pages shaved off. This is no better demonstrated than in the first third of the novel where it takes Shardlake on a journey to Portsmouth, a journey that did not need a detailed progress to the fictional Hoyland Priory where the story truly begins. Shardlake travels with the army who are moving to the Solent as part of Henry’s war and the journey felt needless as they move from village to town (some of which are familiar to me yet the journey is pointless without depth or descriptions of those places). This could easily have been cut in half and felt like a stronger opening because of it.
The plot is pretty formulaic from this point, though I hasten to add that this is not necessarily a bad thing. We know how crime dramas pan out and historical crime dramas are rarely that different in terms of how the plot develops: Arrive at the place, some people are friendly, some hostile, some are suspicious of the arrivals and in kind we are suspicious of them, our protagonist is rightly suspicious of all of them, he uncovers a plot that may or may not have anything to do with the murder(s). The person we expect to be the chief suspect is up to something but usually ends up as one of the victims… yada, yada, yada. Nothing is different here and C.J. Sansom is certainly one of the better examples of this kind of plotting.
I don’t think that the two stories gelled well together. There are far too many coincidences that they stretch credibility and too little emotional engagement with the Ellen storyline anyway to stop the attention wandering away. The active participation of Sir Richard Rich and to a lesser extent Catherine Parr, for me felt too intrusive. Sansom had thus far managed to avoid the inclusion of real historical figures within the story. Even Thomas Cromwell who appeared in the earlier books would disappear for much of the plot, appearing only at the beginning to pose the problem and at the end to receive the closing report. I hope this trend does not continue.
I’m sorry to say that this is my least favourite in the series, struggling as Dark Fire did to grab my attention. Where that earlier novel was tightly written with a satisfactory conclusion, this one did neither. The ending is supposed to be the saving grace of any crime novel, where the illusion of mediocrity is dispelled to turn it into a fine piece of work. Not so here and though it revealed an interesting twist it became victim of the worst of crime-fiction cliché: the lengthy exposition of the guilty party. Please get back to basics for the next one Sansom and for goodness sake, get a good editor!