Mysteries Set in History, No. 1
"If we err, therefore, in our liking for detective stories,
we err with Plato."
— John Carter (1930)
By Ron Fritze
September 3, 2007
I will make a confession. I quite enjoy mysteries. I especially like mysteries set in the past when the historical background is well done.
Historical mysteries form the bulk of my recreational reading. Most of them provide good entertainment. Occasionally I discover an absolute dud. On the other hand, excellent authors appear periodically. One I would place in the excellent category is C. J. Sansom.
Shardlake: a Lawyer with Empathy.
An English writer, Sansom has given us three novels set in the reign of Henry VIII: Dissolution (2003), Dark Fire (2005), and Sovereign (2007). These three form a series in which the protagonist is a lawyer named Matthew Shardlake, who interacts with other reoccurring characters, mostly his friends and associates. Shardlake is a thoughtful and sensitive individual who was born with a crooked back, which is a source of his empathy for others.
In Dissolution, Shardlake travels to the fictional monasteries of Scarnsea in Sussex. It is the winter of 1537 and the monastery is being dissolved. Its buildings and lands will be sold to a well-placed member of Parliament. The historical politician Thomas Cromwell sends Shardlake to Scarnsea to handle the business of the dissolution. Then the murders start.
Dark Fire is set in London in 1540. Shardlake's patron, Thomas Cromwell, is on the verge of fatally falling from power. Cromwell hopes to win favor by presenting King Henry VIII with the ancient weapon of "Greek Fire," a sort of napalm or flame thrower device used by the Greeks of the Byzantine Empire. The secret of its formulation had been lost. Others want the secret, too — and more murders follow.
Plots against the King.
Sovereign uses Henry VIII's progress to the malcontented northern of England in 1541 for the historical background. Naturally, there are plots against the King. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, assigns Shardlake the unpleasant duty of escorting a captured traitor to London so that he can be tortured by the professionals in the Tower of London into revealing the names of his associates. Other deep and dark secrets swirl around Shardlake — and bodies start dropping once again.
What is so good about C. J. Sansom's books? Several things, I think. First, the characters are nicely developed. Shardlake is a complex but likeable person. Second, the writing is clear and compelling. Third, the plotting of the mystery is quite believable. I am not a "whodunit" type of mystery reader, so I focus on character development and a good story rather than trying to guess the identity of the culprit. That said, Sansom will keep you guessing.
Finally, and most importantly for this essay, Sansom presents an accurate and evocative picture of the England of Henry VIII during the years 1537 to 1541. When you read Sansom, you can really imagine that you are there with Matthew Shardlake in some smoky inn, or traveling with him on a chilly horseback journey over a forlorn dirt road, or even prowling the mean streets of Tudor London in search of information or clues.
A Detailed Knowledge of History.
The author's portrayals of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer, the Duke of Norfolk, and Sir Richard Rich are firmly based on a detailed knowledge of the era, and are convincing. Historical mysteries set in Tudor England are commonplace fare in today's book marketplace. Usually they are rather average with minimal historical detail and somewhat flat characters. Sansom goes against that common grain and rises to a class by himself.
People who have enjoyed Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, Caleb Carr's The Alienist, and Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost will enjoy C. J. Sansom. Books like these make Raymond Chandler's declaration true:
"Show me a man or woman who cannot stand mysteries and I will show you a fool, a clever fool — perhaps — but a fool just the same."
Click on the black panther to read Ron Fritze's previous essay,
"History Is Good for You!"