Literary novelists have been turning to writing detective fiction in droves over the past year, yet authors of the calibre of P D James, Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin and Minette Walters remain rare. C J Sansom's Sovereign is the third in a series of historical detective novels, which deserve as wide a readership as any of the above. Sansom's hero, Matthew Shardlake, is a hunchbacked lawyer at the court of Henry VIII, who initially supports the King's dissolution of the monasteries but comes, increasingly, to realise the corruption, cruelty and self-interest that characterised the reign of Henry Tudor.
Despised as a "crookback" but respected because of his professional skills, Shardlake is not the kind of narrator you immediately warm to. Soured by pain, he is physically dependent on his manservant, the splendidly foul-mouthed Jew, Barak. It is 1541, and our narrator is more vulnerable than ever following the execution of Thomas Cromwell, Shardlake's former patron. He tends to solve murder mysteries while bent (so to speak) on legal business of a politically delicate nature. In this third novel he has come to York, in advance of Henry VIII's progress to the North, intended to overawe the King's rebellious subjects.
Shardlake has his own problems, including the recent death of his father, the suspicious seduction of Barak by a pretty maid, Tamasin, and the enmity of the loathsome nobleman, Sir Richard Rich. His mission is to inspect Broderick, a conspirator who must be kept alive to be tortured at the Tower, despite the ministrations of his brutal gaoler, Radwinter, who believes "the body of England is covered in the scars left by the great leech of Rome".
Shardlake's disability, unlike that of Verdi's Rigoletto, endows him with a compassion that his own time fails to value. A lens on a society described in meticulous and often stomach-churning detail, he is a straight man in a crooked world who must keep his mouth shut to survive, but whose pride and honour often lead him into error. Publicly humiliated by the ageing, monstrous King, he is soon in danger of his life. What is the secret contained in the box of a murdered glazier? Why does the tormented Broderick assert that Henry is "the Mouldwarp", and what is the connection of the Great Progress with the conspirator?
Sansom's plot takes over half the novel's 573 pages to get to full speed, but does build up to genuine horror and a devastating revelation based on impressive historical research. It's deeper, stronger and subtler than most novels in this genre (including Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose). The series is becoming an annual treat which admirers of David Starkey's Tudor biographies will value: they would, incidentally, teach most secondary school history students more than a plethora of National Curriculum textbooks. The vigorous, well-drawn characters and their flawed moral intelligence are especially enjoyable, and a reminder of much that is lacking in current literary fiction.
As political greed continues to torment the innocent under the guise of religion, this gripping and engaging series seems ominously prescient about the present, as well as genuinely enlightening about the past.