On a huge hill, Cragged and steep, Truth stands," wrote John Donne. A great attraction of C J Sansom's series of novels set in the reign of Henry VIII lies not merely in the authentic background but in the personality of the main character – that persistent seeker after truth, Matthew Shardlake, Sansom's intelligent, hunchbacked Tudor lawyer. His principled investigations frequently land him in trouble, especially in an age that favoured turncoats. And not only did the official religion change with dizzying frequency; so did the King's wives.
In Heartstone, Catherine Parr, the sixth wife, is just managing to cling on to her crown. Through an old servant of hers, Shardlake becomes embroiled in a strange story. A young ward may have been cheated of his rightful inheritance, as often happened. When Shardlake sets his fine mind to work on the case, there is another mystery: what really happened to the boy's tragically deceased twin sister?
Accompanied by his faithful man, Barak, the lawyer sets out on a journey through southern England to interview the ward's guardian and his wife. They find an unpleasant family in a sinister household of casual cruelties, but can Shardlake retrieve the youngster's estate? Sansom's skill is such that he can make even the intricacies of Tudor inheritance law gripping. The theme of dispossession is echoed in a sub-plot involving Ellen Fettipace, whom we encountered in Sansom's previous work as an inhabitant of Bedlam. Shardlake uncovers the dreadful circumstances that resulted in Ellen's illness and confinement as a lunatic.
His pursuit of truth takes place against the larger historical tapestry, particularly the threat of French invasion. England is on a war footing, with the warning beacons ready, the iron-foundries casting cannon and warships bristling with armaments.
Shardlake, who has arrived in Portsmouth in pursuit of the ward, finds himself hauled painfully aboard one of the King's ships. The name painted on her side is Mary Rose. Sansom brilliantly exploits the hindsight that we bring to the historical novel, for we turn the pages with bated breath, waiting for the inevitable, wondering who will survive. Life aboard the ship, top-heavy, crowded with soldiers and sailors, is rivetingly described. It's a long struggle for Shardlake, but the hill of truth is well worth climbing.