A novel that begins with four people being burned alive is not for the faint-hearted, but the return of Matthew Shardlake, the hunchbacked Tudor lawyer created by C J Sansom, is to be welcomed.
It is summer 1456, the hunt for heretics is raging and Catherine Parr, sixth and last wife of the dying Henry VIII, is in terrible danger.
Shardlake is a hero both in and out of his time. Having a disability makes him acutely sensitive to the sufferings of others, in a time where compassion is seen as weakness or even heresy. The Queen, whom he both loves and admires, has made the egregious error of writing a book in which she makes it all too clear that her sympathies lie with the Protestants, rather than the increasingly conservative Catholicism towards which the King seems to be veering back. Only one copy of her Lamentation exists – but it has been stolen.
Sansom’s six-book series began with Dissolution, in which Shardlake, an employee of Thomas Cromwell, first has his own Protestantism challenged. Older, sadder, and wiser, he is aware that anyone can be denounced. If the Queen’s Lamentation becomes public knowledge, she could be the latest royal wife to go to the block. So, Shardlake and his assistants Barak and Nicholas embark on an increasingly desperate hunt for thieves and murderers which leads to the highest in the land.
The plot and pacing make this the best Shardlake yet. A former historian and lawyer, Sansom always proposes new theories about Henry’s reign: here, that the King’s rapid changing of religious policy and physical deterioration was due not to syphilis but to the ravages of diabetes. And, in cruel times, it is a vision of how individuals find the moral courage to fight injustice which links the Shardlake novels to Sansom’s other fictions, Winter in Madrid and Dominion.
Lamentation, like its predecessors, is a triumph both as detective fiction and as a novel, and its 615 pages never drag. Though over-fond of adverbs (especially “bluntly” and “quietly”) Sansom’s deep feeling for the psychology of religious faith, and for the lives of the defenceless, makes him, in my view, superior to Hilary Mantel. People in his books survive by desperate intelligence and luck: his apprehension of Henry’s court gives us both its fairy-tale beauty and its nightmarishly factional politics.
By the time Shardlake has found new employment with the Princess Elizabeth, our hearts are lightened with the hope that better times are coming, both for England and for this remarkably sympathetic hero.
Amanda Craig’s most recent novel, Hearts and Minds, is published by Abacus at £8.99Reuse content