In the debut novel of this Tudor-era series, C.J. Sansom lays the groundwork for what could be a great set of historical mysteries. After King Henry VIII enacted the dissolution of all monasteries across England, Thomas Cromwell sent commissioners out to ensure the rules were followed in short order. After one such man, Robin Singleton, was reported slain at the monastery in Scarnsea, Cromwell calls for an investigation. Turning to Matthew Shardlake, Cromwell entrusts him with returning after having located the killer and finishing the work that Singleton could not. Shardlake makes his way to Scarnsea, in hopes that this will be a quick legal matter, but soon discovers that there is more to the monastery than meets the eye. While a killer is on the loose, there are other matters that require his attention, including struggles with the transition to the Church of England and with the personal lives of those who work inside the monastery’s walls. Shardlake must also come to terms with the means by which Singleton was killed, decapitation by sword, and stifle the memories of seeing young Anne Boleyn executed not long before in that manner. As Shardlake inches closer to finding the killer, more bodies turn up, leaving him to wonder if this is a single killer or a group who have been targeting individuals for a variety of reasons. Pressured to return to London, Shardlake realises how life outside the big city differs greatly from monastic life, though murder knows no different. Sansom does well with this first in the series, keeping readers curious about what is to come. Recommended for those with a love of all things Tudor and readers who enjoy a well-balanced mystery.
I admit that I struggled trying to read this book years ago, such a shock to many that ripples appeared across those who follow my reviews. I decided to return to see if Sansom might have grown on me, which I must admit must have happened. The story kept my attention and I was curious to see where Matthew Shardlake would go to find a killer out in the country. Shardlake is an interesting protagonist, even for Tudor times. A solicitor by trade, Shardlake is known less for his legal mind that the significant hunchback he possesses. This feature has led many to comment on his abilities, as though posture denotes the ability to compute information. Shardlake may have been sent by the Crown to investigate, but he shows that he is able to explore matters at his own pace and with an attentiveness that gets things done. He is sly and astute without being offensive, particularly towards those who are already on edge. There is surely much more to learn about him, which will come in the next few novels. Others prove wonderful additions to the story, including monks, monastic assistants, and even members of Court who seek Shardlake’s quick responses to get to the bottom of events. Sansom weaves them all together wonderfully and pushes to develop key relationships throughout that will help propel the story forward. The premise of the novel is strong, set against the events in English history that brought Henry VIII much power of the monasteries in his attempt to weed out those who would speak against the Church of England. With the execution of Anne Boleyn and the most recent queen dead in childbirth, there is much going on, even behind the scenes. Sansom captures this while offering a stellar mystery to keep the reader enthralled. Full of information and small details that grow as the narrative develops, Sansom thrusts his protagonist into the middle of it all, while also offering up base reactions to the dissolution of the monastic life, important at the time, though rarely reported. I am eager to see where the series goes and am pleased I took the time to return to the piece. I will try things by audio, as it may have been my trying to trudge through the book alone that left me soured the first time I tried to digest the plot.
Kudos, Mr. Sansom, for a wonderful beginning to a series set during one of my favourite times in history. Let’s see what other mysteries await and how Tudor life will shape it.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons