It is shortly after the death of Queen Jane in Henry VIII’s reign. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer employed by Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s vicar general. Like Cromwell, Shardlake believes in reforming the Catholic church to abolish its abuses.
Cromwell has already dissolved the smaller abbeys and is now ready to start on the large ones. His commissioner Singleton has traveled out to investigate an abbey in southern England, Scarnsea, to find an excuse to dissolve it. Cromwell has received a letter from Singleton’s assistant saying that Singleton was murdered. Cromwell dispatches Shardlake to investigate the murder and find an excuse to close the abbey.
Shardlake has just returned from Sussex, and his disability as a hunchback makes him dread another journey in the winter cold. He takes along his own assistant, Mark Poer, who has recently been demoted for becoming involved with a lady in waiting.
When Shardlake arrives at the abbey, he finds that Singleton was decapitated, possibly with a sword. Sometime the same night that Singleton was murdered in the kitchen, someone sacrificed a chicken on the church altar and stole a holy relic.
Shardlake finds a complex environment with many possible suspects, particularly the five senior monks who have access to the keys. He also finds himself unfortunately attracted to Alice, a serving woman employed in the infirmary, as does his assistant Mark.
This is a complicated mystery not just set in a historical time but close to and involving the important events of the time. Shardlake is an interesting character whose faith in his master Cromwell is disturbed by what he learns in his investigation.
Although I picked up on key clues when they appeared and did guess the murderer of Singleton, a lot more happens in the novel that is harder to figure out. I’ve read good things about this series and think it is certainly worth continuing. This book is the first in the series, for those who are interested.