For this week’s letter, S my contribution to Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet series is Sansom and Shardlake, more specifically C J Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake historical crime fiction series.
Chris J Sansom trained and worked as a solicitor before he wrote the Tudor murder mystery series featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake. There are currently four books:
Dissolution – set in 1537 – Shardlake investigates the death of a Commissioner during the dissolution of the monasteries.
Dark Fire – set in 1540 – Shardlake is assigned to find the formula for Greek Fire, whilst defending a young girl accused of brutal murder.
Sovereign – set in 1541 – Shardlake investigates a number of murders whilst on a secret assignment from Archbishop Cranmer.
Revelation – set in 1543 – Shardlake investigates the murder of his old friend Roger Elliard,and also works on the case of a teenage boy, imprisoned in the Bedlam hospital for the insane.
A fifth book – Heartstone (set in 1545) will be published later this year. Dark Fire won the 2005 CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger and Sansom was “Very Highly Commended” in the 2007 CWA Dagger in the Library award, for the Shardlake series.
Matthew Shardlake, the main character, is a hunchback, an outsider, scorned by society, but prized by Thomas Cromwell for his intelligence and persistence. As the story progresses through the books he begins to question both his religous and political beliefs. He is a fascinating character.
The books all have a rich historical background. The 16th century was a time of great change – changes in thought, belief and social control. The books have a wonderful sense of time and place – Tudor England from the gutter to the court. The historical characters include Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry VIII. They had me turning the pages to see what happens next and find out who committed the murders, and there was enough commentary on the political, religious and social scene for me to grasp what it was like living in Tudor England. They are written in a fluent, readable style with a good balance between dialogue and description and the characters are well-defined and believable. I loved all of them.
I read the first three books before I began this blog, so I’ve only written about Revelation – see here. There is a BBC4 Bookclub broadcast interview with Sansom talking about his first book, Dissolution.
I’ve seen reports that Kenneth Branagh was in discussions about playing Shardlake for the BBC, but I don’t know how true this is and after seeing him as Wallender I can’t imagine him playing Matthew Shardlake. Does anyone have any more information?
Sansom has also written Winter in Madrid, an action packed thrilling war/spy story about the Spanish Civil War. It is tense and gripping but it’s also a moving love story and historical drama. I wrote more about it here.