Dark Fire CJ Sansom (2004) PLUS Lamentation CJ Sansom (2014)
Matthew Shardlake is the subject of ridicule on two fronts. He’s a lawyer, so he’s the butt of jokes about acquisitive lawyers. And he has a hunchback, so he gets crude comments about his physical disability. He’s trying to keep up with the everyday demands of his legal practice in London, that great center of political intrigue, when a high-level government official draws him into a time-pressured investigation of a dangerous new military weapon. And it’s also the hottest summer anyone can remember.
In some ways, not a lot has changed since the year 1540.
Dark Fire is the second in the series of historical mysteries by British historian and former lawyer CJ Sansom. We’re in Tudor England, with Henry VIII on the throne, unhappily married to the fourth of his six wives. Thomas Cromwell is his chief minister, seeking to keep both his job and his head. Our hero, Shardlake, is in Cromwell’s camp, supporting the reformer against those who want to restore Catholicism to England. But Cromwell is about to be executed, and the novelist knows that his readers know this—or if they don’t, they can read his Historical Note at the back of the book.
In first-person narrative, Shardlake takes us along on his frantic mission, twisting through the streets of London and back and forth on the mucky Thames, sweating profusely and reeling from the reek of rubbish and ordure. He’s pretty peeved that Cromwell has coerced him into taking this dangerous assignment, by helping him on an unrelated criminal case. Shardlake is also terrified by the numerous attempts on his life; his many narrow escapes do become implausible, but mysteries are often like that. The book has numerous sub-plots, as Shardlake tries to satisfy Cromwell’s demands, carry on with his own legal cases, maintain his household, and possibly pursue romance.
The mysterious weapon, Dark Fire or Greek Fire, is a petroleum-based liquid that’s propelled out of a metal device to quickly engulf a target in flames. As an ethical man, Shardlake is conflicted about the moral implications of the use of Dark Fire. His pursuit of the formula and of the flame-throwing equipment sends him into the secretive and fantastical world of Renaissance alchemy—a tough place for a man of logic and reason to find himself.
The cast of characters in Dark Fire is large, including both historical and fictional people, and corruption among the court toadies is rampant. Through the diverse characters he creates, the novelist explores Tudor-era prejudices that still trouble humankind: anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, disability discrimination, and intra-religion persecution. His treatment of these issues blends into his narrative, so it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed.
I was surprised to see Sansom’s fairly positive portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in this novel. Dark Fire was published five years before Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel Wolf Hall (2009) rescued Cromwell from the opprobrium of history with a detailed portrait of his rise to power. Mantel and Sansom both seem to be saying that history should not be reduced to simplistic good-guys-vs-bad-guys pronouncements. The historical figure Thomas Cromwell and the fictional character Matthew Shardlake are juggling a dozen balls at once, struggling to stay alive, to build their personal careers, and to act for the good of the nation.
Since Dark Fire was such a fine historical mystery, I decided to read the most recent volume in Sansom’s series, Lamentation. This sixth installment of the Shardlake stories is a slower read than Dark Fire, and it wades deeper into religious and political controversies. I relish the dissection of dogmas and doctrines in Tudor England, but if you aren’t interested in the Tudors’ ever-shifting definition of “heresy,” you may find Lamentation somewhat dismal.
The mystery in Lamentation centers on a possibly heretical religious book, handwritten by the queen and stolen from a locked chest in her private chambers. The queen is Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth and last wife, who must get nervous in the night about the fact that four of her five predecessors were either divorced or beheaded by Henry. Queen Catherine calls upon our hero, Matthew Shardlake, to make discreet inquiries to find the secret book, to keep her from burning at the stake.
The queen’s book did actually exist, but its theft is fictional, as are the ensuing murders and escapades in taverns and dungeons and wherries all over London town. As in Dark Fire, most of the characters in Lamentation have been invented by Sansom. The pleasures of this novel lie in the interaction of the fictional characters with actual figures in Henry VIII’s court during the final year of the king’s life, 1546-1547. Throughout the text, Sansom points gently to the chaos that we know is waiting at the door when Henry dies: the throne passing to his underage son, King Edward VI (Protestant), then to his daughter Queen Mary I (Catholic), then to his daughter Queen Elizabeth I (Protestant). Sansom even gets in a few non-explicit predictions about the execution of King Charles I, which will occur a century later.
Sansom’s historical references are, to my knowledge, accurate, and only a very few anachronisms of speech creep in to his dialogue. The subplots are engaging, and the scenes of sixteenth-century London, in both the palace and the gutters, are constructed well. So if you like wallowing in convoluted royal intrigue, jump right in.
Here are all the books in CJ Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so far: Dissolution (2003), Dark Fire (2004), Sovereign (2006), Revelation (2008), Heartstone (2010), Lamentation (2014).
This book review is a bonus Sunday post!