At the start of this second Matthew Shardlake mystery, Matthew’s disillusionment with his master Thomas Cromwell has caused him to break free from Cromwell. He has had his own law practice for the past three years. The rumor now is that Cromwell may be failing in his influence over Henry VIII after he backed the marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves. The political maneuverings around Cromwell overshadow the entire novel.
But first Matthew takes on a case for a friend, Joseph Wentworth, whose niece Elizabeth has been accused of murdering her 12-year-old cousin Ralph by pushing him into a dry well. Although no one actually witnessed the crime, both his sisters were on the scene shortly afterwards and say that Elizabeth was the only one there. Elizabeth herself isn’t talking.
Matthew goes to see her in prison and is struck by her expression of fury. In court, he tries to argue lack of competency, but according to the laws of the time, if she won’t speak, she must be pressed until she will, a cruel death by crushing. Matthew is unable to prevent her from being sentenced to be pressed.
Next, he is summoned to see Cromwell by a rude young man named Jack Barak. Matthew learns that Cromwell was offered the secret of a powerful weapon called Dark Fire, or Greek Fire. This secret was brought back from the East years before by a monk. A container of it was found by Michael Cristwood in a deconsecrated abbey, along with the formula, and he and his alchemist brother worked on the formula and a dispenser before demonstrating the weapon to Cromwell. Now Cromwell has promised a demonstration to the king in 10 days, but the Cristwoods have disappeared.
Cromwell wants Matthew and Barak to find the Dark Fire and the formula within ten days. He is counting on this discovery to save his position. Matthew makes a deal with Cromwell—if he will save Elizabeth from pressing, Matthew will look for the Dark Fire.
Matthew and Barak soon find Michael Cristwood dead but no sign of the apparatus or formula. Two thugs seem to be just ahead of them, murdering anyone who knows about Dark Fire and attempting to murder Matthew and Barak. Soon it becomes clear to Matthew that some powerful patron is behind the thugs, but who is it?
Although this Matthew Shardlake novel also has a powerful sense of place, London during a sultry 1540 summer, his investigation seems bogged down in this novel. He just seems to be questioning the same people over and over to little result. In any case, I was far more interested in the mystery of Elizabeth and her cousin, which was only incidental to the story. Some of the truth of that case seemed apparent almost at once, although not to our protagonist.
Still, I will continue with the series. I have as a goal to read all the Walter Scott Prize winners and nominees, and Samson’s Heartstone, the fifth in this series, is on the list. But I want to read the books in order. So, I’m committed to the series at least until book five.