A whodunnit series, set during the reign of Henry VIII at the height of Reformation uncertainty, is a concept that combines many of my dearest interests. I am seriously behind in only picking up C.J. Sansom’s historical mystery books now but, like many of you, I recently came into a surplus of free time. There are seven books in the Matthew Shardlake series; the first novel, Dissolution, was published in 2003 and Tombland, the latest, in 2018. I am half way through the four books I have on my bookshelf and I will be looking to get my hands on the rest of the set with pleasure.
The novels are easy reading but far from lacking in depth. The brisk writing style is perfect for delivering the fast-paced plots. The author uses few words to convey a lot of meaning. The focus on grounding the story in an up-close and personal look at the less savoury sights (and smells) of Tudor England gives it an authenticity and awareness that elevates the mystery. The small details are some of the most compelling but it is not bogged down in describing the historical setting. These facts are used to frame the story, not to prove the author has done his research.
The narrator, lawyer-turned-detective Matthew Shardlake, offers a unique perspective for a crime-solving protagonist. A hunchback academic, he is happier reading his books than leaping fences and chasing villains. Both of the first two novels give him a more adventurous companion to do the heavy lifting which sets up a good dynamic. The side characters also offer unusual points of view, with Matthew’s closest confidant a moorish apothecary, often cast as an outsider.
Matthew is far from perfect in a way that suits his time period and status. The lawyer’s own misconceptions and presumptions are used to give readers more than enough chance to work out the mystery as we suspect characters that he himself discounts. At heart, Matthew is a good man, struggling with the brutality of his world and its justice system, but his personality is not entirely out of step with his time period. Although he and other characters have doubts and fears, they don’t come across as anachronistic.
Historical figures that the narrator encounter are seen through his eyes which works to ease the choices around conveying real people with real personalities that might not translate down the centuries. It is not so much that this is what Thomas Cromwell or Thomas Howard were like but that this is what Matthew Shardlake thought and felt about them.
In general, the political machinations and religious complexities of the historical setting are not shied away from. Characters are motivated, and at times battered, by this sweeping historical context, and they do discuss multifaceted religious and philosophical points of view, but the narrative does not become preachy. The individual murder mysteries are grisly and exhilarating romps even within these dangerous and brutal times.
To explain the whodunnits would almost certainly ruin them. The mysteries are twisting and bloody and satisfying in their conclusions. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to solve along during the journey.