This is the first book in the famous Shardlake series, and a worthy beginning to a set of books that have disturbed and created interest in this period. The reign of Henry VIII has been endlessly filmed, written about from the angle of each queen, examined for its change of church and state. It is the Shardlake series that has come closest to revealing what it was like on the fringes of power, and the fear of breaking the laws or rules that must have seemed to change everyday, at least until Mantel’s Wolf Hall with its examination of Cromwell’s life and times.
Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer, used to the face to face battle of the London law courts, sometimes employed by Cromwell to sort out a particular difficulty in enforcing the changes in church and state he was determined to push through despite the hardship they may cause to local areas. Shardlake is human. That is where the strength of the book lies for me; in all his discomfort, attraction to women he meets, fear of failure, he is a real person. In this book, his mission to sort out what has been happening in a small monastery on the coast, specifically the death of one of Cromwell’s commissioners, is anything but straightforward. Although Shardlake is an instinctive supporter of the religious reforms which mean that every religious practice is being questioned, he becomes disturbed by what they mean in practice. The murder which brings Shardlake and his employee Mark though the snow and winter is gory and not easy to solve, especially given the fear and unwillingness to cooperate shown by the monks and inhabitants of the monastery and nearby village.
This is a closed community murder mystery which includes all the twists and turns and questionable characters that any reader could wish for in a well written crime novel. The characters who have so much to conceal are contradictory, dangerous and very well drawn. The weather, marshes and unstable buildings all add to an atmosphere of menace. This is the sort of book that can lead to unsettling dreams, as no where and no one is as it seems.
I knew a fair bit about this historical period, but I think that it would be very approachable by the general reader as Cromwell and Shardlake’s actions are explained, even when royal connections emerge. Shardlake emerges a very real person, sensitive to comments about his appearance, aware of his shortcomings but also his abilities. He has a past, a sad history of attraction to a woman who he lost, and his concern for Alice is genuine. Alice and the very few other female characters are strong and act under their own initiative, but law, custom and expectation are against them.
I would recommend this book as a fascinating and immersive read, even for those who are not historians or crime fans. The characters and setting really live, and this book is a great start to the Shardlake series which can become addictive!
I picked up this book again after reading it several years ago, and enjoyed it enormously, if enjoy is the right word. I am trying to come up with a talk on the Reformation and Fiction for June. I have reread this book and am half way through Wolf Hall (again). I must admit that finding books which deal with this period is not easy; there are so many books about the Tudors but not so many novels about what happened to people when the monasteries closed and churches changed. Any ideas?