I've been giving some thought to my feelings about historical fiction. It's not a genre I actively seek out, and often don't take to it at all (I had a lukewarm reaction to In the Name of the Family, which so many people have loved). But there are some authors who do it superbly - Sarah Waters, Jane Harris, Tracey Chevalier at her best all spring to mind, and there are others. And then there's CJ Sansom. He has produced six of the most stunning novels, all set in the Tudor period and revolving around his central character, the 'crookback' lawyer Matthew Shardlake.
These books have been around for a while - the first one, Dissolution, was published in 2003 and this, the final one so far in the series, in 2014. But it was about two years ago that I finally caved in and started listening to friends who were praising them to the skies. I was interested to see, re-reading the review of the first one I picked up, that my reaction was slightly mixed. But I liked it enough to pursue the series and ended up a huge fan, with only Lamentation, the sixth novel, put on hold for a rainy day. Not sure what the nature of that rainy day was supposed to be, but I've been off on my travels recently and wanted something really substantial in the way of an audiobook to take with me. And Lamentation, at over 25 hours of listening, was the obvious choice.
So, the books in the Shardlake series are in fact crime novels, of a very classy kind. For Shardlake, a man of great intelligence as well as tremendous humanity, is as close as you could get to being a detective in those far off days. Shardlake's investigations have taken him into some dark and dangerous places, from a monastery in the grip of dissolution to a terrifying naval battle in Portsmouth and many more besides. In Lamentation he has been employed by Henry VIII's final wife, Queen Catherine Parr, who Shardlake has worked for before and with whom he is not a little in love. Henry is dying, but trying to keep a grip on his kingdom, which is violently divided between religious factions. The novel actually begins with a highly distressing scene in which Shardlake is obliged to go and watch the burning of a woman convicted of heresy (here this means radical protestantism). Catherine has definite leanings that way, and has written a book on the subject, Lamentations of a Sinner. She has kept this from Henry, afraid she might be tortured and executed if he found out, but it has been stolen from its hiding place and it's up to Shardlake to find it before the king does. This leads Shardlake, his assistant Jack Barak, and one of their young clerks, into terrifying and life-threatening situations.
This is an extremely exciting and action-packed novel. At one point I nearly gave up listening because I was so upset by something that had just happened to a central character, though of course I couldn't. But action alone is not what gives these novels such a tremendous appeal. Sansom, who started his own career in the law, is also a trained historian, and much original research has gone into each of them. I read an interesting interview with him in a Guardian article from 2010 in which he explains why he is so drawn to the Tudor period:
because it's the moment at which the medieval certainties that had endured for centuries were turned upside down. It was a time of extraordinary ferment: in the space of a few years, the state took on a completely different meaning. And the more I read about it, the more I realised how like the 20th century it was in its anxiety and uncertainty, even though people thought so differently then.
It's exactly these uncertainties and ferments that in their different ways lie at the heart of all these novels. In Lamentation there is a tremendous sense of the fear that invades every level of society even up to the Queen herself, the political machinations that feed on that fear, the power and the jostling for power in court circles, the powerful, divisive beliefs of the religious fanatics who are willing to face torture and death rather than abjure their faith. And through it all we have Matthew Shardlake, very much in some ways a modern man, not at all sure which, if any, side of the religious divide he falls on. For this very reason, he's able to stand apart from it all, applying his objective reason and clear head to the pursuit of justice and the solution of crimes.
As you can tell, I absolutely loved this novel. I'm tempted to say it's the best so far, but they are all really really good. The Audible narrator, as of all the novels, is Stephen Crossley, and he makes a fantastic job of reproducing Shardlake and all his many friends and enemies. I really hope Sansom is writing another one, but meanwhile this was a great treat and I'm grateful to Audible for the credit that enabled me to download it. Listen or read - you won't regret it.