Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 13 Nov 2014 in Fiction |

CJ SANSOM Lamentation (Shardlake #6). Reviewed by Peter Corris

Tags: / / / / / /

lamentationA novel of intrigue, heresy, violence and betrayal set in the turmoil of 16th-century England.

Beginning with Dissolution in 2003, this the sixth book in Sansom’s highly successful Matthew Shardlake series of novels set in the reign of the second Tudor king – Henry VIII. It is territory also contemporaneously traversed by Hilary Mantel but the differences in the two writers’ approaches are profound.

Where Mantel’s style was highly literary, almost stylistically experimental, in Wolf Hall (2009), and verging on academic in Bring up the Bodies (2012), Sansom’s books, while well researched and imbued with period flavour, are unashamedly historical murder mysteries and all the more accessible and enjoyable for that.

Matthew Shardlake is a hunchbacked lawyer and Sansom has perfectly managed the first requirement for an author setting out to write in the first person about a series character – that the voice be engaging. To combine a physical disability with intellectual acuity and personal charm in a character is a master-stroke.

Shardlake is country bred, not quite of gentry status, but he has risen to affluence and privilege through his skills as a lawyer. He has also faced considerable danger in the turbulent world of the mid-16th century, first working for Henry VIII’s adviser Thomas Cromwell and then for Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife. In the sinister court politics and religious divisions of the period one could be in favour and on the right side one month, and on the wrong side and mounting the scaffold the next.

Shardlake has survived and prospered, although he has made many enemies, notable among them Sir Richard Rich, a privy councillor. He has even earned the disfavour of the king. In a time of religious turmoil, Shardlake, formerly an enthusiastic Protestant, has become virtually agnostic, a fact he must conceal from the authorities at all costs. Deviants from Anglican orthodoxy can be burnt as heretics

As in the best historical mysteries, action is to the forefront. There are burnings at the stake, sword fights, fatal bashings, torture in the Tower of London, even a death by gunshot – a rare and shocking event in the period – all in an atmosphere of intrigue and betrayal. Throw in a certain amount of humour, evocative descriptions of London as a pestilential place in more ways than one, and you have a rich brew.

Here is Shardlake musing on a return visit to Smithfield, where he had been reluctantly forced to witness the burning at the stake of three heretics, one a woman:

It had been market day in Smithfield and the cattle-pens were being taken away, boys with brooms cleaning cow dung from the open space. Farmers and traders stood in the doorways of the taverns, enjoying the evening breeze. Ragged children milled around, they always gathered at the market to try and earn a penny here or there. The awful scene I had witnessed last month had taken place right here. One might have thought some echo would remain, a glimpse of flame in the air, the ghost of an agonised scream. But there was, of course, nothing.

Catherine Parr has unwisely written an account of her religious views, which have moved dangerously close to what might be construed as heresy. Worse, she has concealed her writing from the increasingly tyrannical and suspicious king. If the manuscript, which has been stolen, were to find its way into the wrong hands, it could cause her to meet the same fate as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

Shardlake, unrequitedly enamoured of the queen, will do anything to protect her and sets about investigating the theft, involving himself and his friends in the plots of others and schemes of his own as the bodies and threats mount.

Lamentation has a double plot – that of the court intrigue and a seemingly unrelated but intensely interesting private case Shardlake has on hand. In the best traditions of the legal thriller (see John Grisham and Michael Connelly), the plots are eventually fused.

This is a good, satisfying book but it could have been better. In a long and complicated story, it can be useful to readers for a first-person character to reprise some of the plot, but here there is too much outright repetition. It is as though the author is reminding himself of where he’s got to.

While a slavish adherence to period speech can become tedious and some judicious upgrading is acceptable, Sansom goes too far. Shardlake’s assistant Jack Barak speaks in far too modern a manner and his expletives in particular have too much of an up-to-date ring.

It’s unlikely that, in 1547, even a streetwise character like Barak would respond to another character’s wish list with ‘As if’.

More seriously, there are anachronistic words and expressions throughout. ‘On the sidelines’ is a comparatively modern usage, while ‘obese’ and ‘revolution’ only took on their modern meanings in the 17th century. ‘Scenario’, as applied to alternative events or explanations, came in to use in the 20th century. Like all writers, Sansom would have benefited from the services of a good editor.

CJ Sansom Lamentation Pan MacMillan 2014 PB 650pp $29.99

You can buy this book from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.