Day 1117: Heartstone

Cover for HeartstoneI’ve been slowly making my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series just to read Heartstone, which is on my Walter Scott prize list. Although I enjoy the period and Sansom’s thorough research, I will have to consider whether I want to follow the depressive Shardlake’s adventures further.

In Heartstone, Shardlake is summoned by the queen, who by now is Catherine Parr. She asks Matthew to investigate an allegation related to the Court of Wards and Augmentations, which is notoriously corrupt.

Michael Calfhill was employed as tutor to Hugh and Emma Curteys until their parents died. Their wardship was sold to Nicholas Hobbey, their neighbor, even as Michael and the vicar were trying to track down an aunt to take charge of them. Emma died from smallpox and Michael was dismissed, but he worried about Hugh. So, a few weeks ago, he went to visit him unannounced. He returned distraught, claiming he had found out something frightful and wanting a lawyer to sue to remove the wardship from Hobbey. But a few weeks later, he was dead of an apparent suicide. Bess Calfhill, his mother, was once servant to the queen and has gone to her for help.

Matthew is also interested in looking into another mystery. In the last book, he befriended Ellen Fettiplace, a resident of Bedlam. When he examines the records to see who is paying for her support, he learns that she was never committed there. Matthew has heard stories about Ellen that involve a rape and a fire. Since his business with Hobbey takes him near to her village, he decides to find out how she came to Bedlam.

This novel is set with the background of Henry VIII’s war with the French. Throughout the novel, the main characters encounter preparations for a French invasion, and Matthew’s investigations take him to Portsmouth just before the Battle of Solent.

I was easily able to guess the big secret in one case (although I’m not sure it was obvious), but I was mistaken about the other. Certainly, the mysteries are not the most important aspect of Sansom’s novels—they are just the force that drives it forward. Sansom has a talent for immersing readers in the period. Still, Matthew is lonely and sad, and his life seems to consist of one loss after another. In this novel, he decides to change his life, and I may read the next one just to see if he does. (I believe there is only one more.)

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Day 1082: Revelation

Cover for RevelationIn C. J. Sansom’s fourth Matthew Shardlake novel it is 1543. Matthew’s experiences working for Thomas Cromwell have driven him away from his former Reformist religious views, and he has been avoiding becoming involved in political cases. He has never been happier working for ordinary people in the Court of Requests.

But soon his friend Roger Elliard is murdered in a most peculiar way, and Matthew vows to Roger’s widow Dorothy that he will find the killer. This purpose forces him to work for Archbishop Cranmer, along with the Earl of Hertford and Thomas Seymour, who are all worried that Roger’s death has something to do with Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr, whom the king is courting. Their fears are because of a similar murder of Dr. Gurney, who attended Lord Latimer during his final illness. They appoint Matthew to work with Coroner Hartsnet to find the murderer.

Of course, their fears are political. Henry VIII has been turning more and more back to conservative religious views, away from the Reformists. The Seymours and Cranmer see a marriage to Catherine Parr as the only hope for Reform. The English are more and more polarized by religion, with fanatical Reformists ranting in the street on the one hand while Bishop Bonner cracks down on them on the other.

Soon Matthew is convinced that there have actually been three murders. Further, they are modeled after passages in Revelation that detail seven ghastly visitations.

Although Sansom’s Shardlake mystery novels create a fully realized world with highly developed, convincing characters, there is something about them that holds me back from complete attention. I am always mildly interested but not absorbed. In this case, the novel took me an unheard of twelve days to read. That makes me happy that I have only one more to read, the one for my Walter Scott Prize project, although since I understand there is only one more after that in the series, I may choose to finish the series.

Don’t misunderstand me. These novels have complex mysteries that are difficult to guess and are well researched and interesting. I think lots of people would and do love them. I have personally not been able to decide why I’m not that involved. Perhaps Matthew Shardlake is too depressive for me.

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Day 1045: Sovereign

Cover for SovereignI am working my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so that I can cross his fifth novel off my Walter Scott prize list. Sovereign is Sansom’s third, set in 1541.

Henry VIII is now married to Catherine Howard, and he is already engaged in a progress through the north when the novel begins. Archbishop Cranmer asks Matthew to meet the progress in York and help handle and judge the legal petitions that will be presented to the king. In addition, he asks Shardlake to see to the welfare of the state prisoner and make sure he stays alive until he gets to the Tower of London.

Once Matthew and his assistant Jack Barak arrive, things get complicated. His fellow lawyer in charge of petitions, Wrenne, seems like a nice man, but Matthew does not like Fulke Radwinter, the jailer for the prisoner Broderick. And there are complications. Shortly after arriving, Matthew finds the body of a glazier, Oldroyd, who has fallen into a cart of glass. The man in charge of the investigation, Sir William Maleverer, is up to his ears in corrupt land deals with Matthew’s great enemy, Sir Richard Rich.

When Matthew and Barak search Oldroyd’s house, they find a locked box in a hidden compartment. They take the box to a safe place in their lodgings, where Barak opens it, but as he is glancing through the papers inside, someone knocks him out and steals them.

After that incident, someone begins trying to kill Matthew. But are the murder attempts connected with the prisoner and his treason, the stolen papers, or Matthew’s law case against Richard Rich?

As usual, I found this novel full of period detail and knowledge of Tudor history. In the background of the novel is the story of Catherine Howard’s downfall. Shardlake, who became disillusioned with Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation in the first novels, now begins to view his monarch with distaste. The series is an interesting one, and I’m happy to continue reading it.

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Day 857: Dark Fire

Cover for Dark FireAt 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.

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Day 797: Dissolution

Cover for DissolutionIt 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.

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