Alan Judd

Troubled waters | 2 October 2010

This is the fifth in C. J. Sansom’s engrossing series of Tudor crime novels.

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C.J. Sansom

Mantle, pp. 633, £

This is the fifth in C. J. Sansom’s engrossing series of Tudor crime novels.

This is the fifth in C. J. Sansom’s engrossing series of Tudor crime novels. His hero is Matthew Shardlake, a middle-aged, hunchbacked property lawyer who lives on the fringe of Henry VIII’s dangerously magnetic court. In his youth a zealous Protestant, or Reformer, the excesses of the revolution we call the Dissolution have led him to distance himself from all factions. He seeks a wife and a quiet professional life, but in a world where the religious is political and the political religious, his insistence on justice invariably leads him into troubled waters.

Literally into the water in this volume, when he almost goes down with the Mary Rose during Henry’s repulsion of a French invasion provoked by his own folly. Shardlake is involved because he had taken a case on behalf of Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth and last queen, with whom he had established a relationship of trust in an earlier volume. The case involves the Court of Wards, a notoriously corrupt body supposed to protect the interests of wealthy orphans but which all too often sold them to whoever was prepared to pay most to exploit their wealth. It is soon apparent, however, that this case has roots which reach deep into Henry’s divided court, entwining — fatally for some — with Shardlake’s private preoccupation with the mysterious past of a lady he visits in Bedlam.

He is accompanied on his hazardous journey to Portsmouth by his assistant, Barak, a tough former street boy of Jewish origin via whom Sansom enriches his evocation of the roughness and readiness of Tudor life. We see, hear, feel and smell the difficulties of travel, the coercion of war, the arbitrariness of governance national and local, the fear of debased coinage, the fragility of health, the daily struggle for survival at a time when the difference between having something and nothing was often the difference between life and death.

And squatting over all, like a great toad, was the issue of the age, the political, social, and economic revolution set in train by Henry. In Heartstone, as in it predecessors, Sansom skilfully conveys how it must have felt to swim in treacherous waters where what happened to your friends or patrons could be as crucial to your survival as anything you did yourself. Yet Sansom (himself a former property lawyer) wears his research lightly and is too good a writer to preach ideology. His rendition of Thomas Cromwell, for instance — that ruthless political genius of the age — is convincing because he neither worships nor reviles. Cromwell is dead in this volume but his shadow was (and is) long. Sansom evokes the sinister as well as he does loyalty, and its price.

The themes of this book and its vivid culmination successfully interweave in Shardlake the personal and the public. And, as usual, the supporting cast is strong. Not only Barak and his wife, Tamasin, through whom over several volumes we get a convincing portrait of a maturing marriage, but Shardlake’s friend Guy, the sensitive and quietly suffering Moorish doctor, the stalwart and troubled Sergeant Leacon, the young legal assistant Feaveryear, the Tudor ‘made man’, Nicholas Hobbey.

The best crime fiction depends at least as much on character, atmosphere and sense of place as on plot, and Heartstone is no exception. It may, however, be exceptional as a crime novel in that we don’t actually see a body until p. 384, but it doesn’t matter. The reason it doesn’t is that Sansom’s story develops naturally. And naturalness is perhaps the key to these books, for all the foul and unnatural deeds with which they deal. They work because they feel real. This is good writing and it should be read.