Revelation, by CJ Sansom

The Tudor Taliban

Apocalypse now! England, where the monasteries have so lately been dissolved, is in the grip of "salvation panic", and the flames of hell are looming. CJ Sansom's fourth fictional outing for his cautious, principled lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, presents early-Tudor London as a city so lashed by fanaticism that Shardlake's search for a serial killer is like looking for a needle in a haystack. In this world, a murderous individual psychopath seems barely less sane than the packs of religious fundamentalists who hunt down those guilty of the fearful crime of eating meat in Lent and burn a 15-year-old apprentice alive.

Not the least scary thing is the mirror this book holds up to our own times, as the powerfully imagined record of a society that has spiralled out of control. The Christian sects who foretold the end of the world, the modern hot-gospellers willing to undertake crusades, the Islamic extremists tearing their countries apart – this was the kind of religious savagery that convulsed 16th-century England.

The book seeks deeply for the sources of insanity in such an era. Shardlake's search takes him to Bedlam, where the physician Guy Malton, trained in the East, takes a special interest in enlightened treatments. Shardlake's predicament seems all the more terrible by contrast with the madness in the streets. Here is a trained lawyer, a man of moderate temperament, a balanced individual still sensitive to the pain of others, struggling to maintain rationality and to protect his small household in the midst of a city which has apparently gone crazy. As he despairingly comments, no-one listens, for all are raving.

Meanwhile there is no hope from the ruler. The royal tyrant, Henry VIII, commits judicial murder at will and the looming question of his sixth marriage will make or break many lives. The king is a giant tiger; no one knows which way he will jump. There is a remarkable description of Westminster Abbey following the dissolution of the monasteries, with tenements springing up around the cloisters and a "privatisation" of the medical services formerly provided in the Abbey infirmary.

When an old friend is discovered with his throat cut and his blood flowing into a fountain, Shardlake finds himself trying to find the killer and to master his own long-held affection for the widow. This murder is the beginning of a series of deaths, each more horrific than the last. Modes of death include being blown to pieces with gunpowder and nailed to the gates of a river lock; the chase culminates in a drowning in filthy sewage.

Shardlake shows his particular brand of moral courage, facing down insults against his hunched back as well as physical danger. The murder mystery is enthralling, but Sansom is intent on the bigger picture. The book has the compulsive quality of a fast-moving narrative, but takes the reader deep into a world where torture and death are not merely endemic but fantastically envisioned at every turn. The painted Doom on the walls of a Catholic chapter house depicts horrific visions. Venture outside, through alleys thronged with beggars, and you will find a Protestant preacher threatening hell-fire from the street corner.

Revelation is not merely the title of the book, nor an indication of what Shardlake finally achieves in his search to unmask a murderer. It is the apocalyptic nightmare of the Four Last Things; Hell on earth – and this is a masterly evocation.

Jane Jakeman's 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan