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maandag 24 augustus 2009

Master Shardlake

I've been reading C.J. Sansom's historical mysteries lately. He has written four novels about Master Shardlake, a hunchback London lawyer. The stories take place at different intervals during the reign of Henry VIII. So far he has written four books: Dissolution, Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation.

Dissolution takes place in the year 1537. The King has recently proclaimed himself to be head of the Church of England, and the country is rapidly changing as a result. Thomas Cromwell is at the height of his power and has ordered the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries. However there is trouble at the Scarnsea monastery, off the Sussex coast. One of his investigators has been found dead, brutally murdered in a sacrilegious way. He calls upon Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and adamant supporter of Reform, to investigate the crime.

The story reminded me of Umberto Ecco's The Name of the Rose. The mysterious murder, set in a monastery, surrounded by internal politics, ressembles this story very much. You could it is more an "Ecco light", with less theological discussions and more detective elements. I enjoyed the book very much as light bed-time reading. The historical setting is depicted well, and the mystery captivates enough to keep you wanting to know more.

Dark Fire takes place a few years later, in 1540. Since his involvement in the murderous events at Scarnsea, Shardlake tries to stay away from politically laden investigations. However, Cromwell once more calls upon his services. The formula to Greek Fire, the legendary weapon used by the Byzantines to destroy the Arab navies, has been discovered in the library of dissolved London monastery. Unfortunately the formula has dissapeared after the brutal murders of the officials who had found it. Once more Shardlake gets on the trail in order to retrieve it.

There is more action/adventure in this novel than in the previous one. Since Shardlake is a hunchback and takes the intellectual challenges on himself, a second character is introduced, Master Barak. Barak works for Cromwell and brings muscle to the story. The historical depiction is again excellent, yet this time the work has more of an adventure movie type of feel.

Sovereign is set a year later, in 1541. Thomas Cromwell has fallen from favor, his role as trusted advisor to the King has been taken over by Archbishop Cranmer. The events take place during Henry VIII's Progress to the North. A state visit to accept the surrender after the rebellion of 1536 in York, called the Pilgrimage of Grace. Shardlake is there in order to deal with the petitions by the locals to the King. Barak, having lost his job after the demise of Cromwell, is now working for Shardlake as an assistant. Once again, there is a political murder tied to the rebellion. At the same time, Shardlake has been charged with the care of a political prisoner, Sir Edward Broderick.

Although the first two books, were nice-an-easy reading material, the formula is starting to wear thin by now. I hadn't noticed before that Sansom's character development is actually very superficial. It hadn't bothered me before, because the previous stories bounced merrily along, whereas in Sovereign things just seem to happen to our heroes. Their actual input is very meagre. They could have easily been left out of the story. I had to drag myself to read to the ending. When Sansom tries to convey emotions, he resorts to basic descriptions like "he felt frustrated" or "he couldn't take the horror". You can say it, but if I'm not feeling it ...

Revelation is the final installment of the series. A brutal murder displayed publicly by a friend of his, draws Shardlake back to work for Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer is less of a favorite than he was the year before. After a few years of hard Reform, the King is allowing some of the Catholic traditions. A behind the scenes war between Reformers and anti-Reformers is going on. The outcome will influence the place of political adversaries at Court. And since the King has a tendency to chop off the heads of people he disagrees with, quite a lot is at stake. Cranmer believes that the murder might have something to do with Catherine Parr. The King , after having disposed of his latest wife, is pursuing her now. Since she looks kindly on Reform, Cranmer and his circle are hoping she will accept. If however, it would be known that religious fundamentalists are involved in murders tied to Parr, it would not bode well. Quickly, however, it becomes clear that they are dealing with a serial killer, who commits murders in a certain way in order to make sure the prophecy about the end of the world as depicted in the biblic book of Revelation comes true.

Although the flow of the story is better than in the previous novel, the weak character development is still a turn-off. Sansom tries to link the way insanity was viewed and treated (in places such as the infamous Bedlam) with the murders taking place. But because you see everything through the eyes of Shardlake, who apparently is not a man with the most emotional insights, I wasn't really drawn into the psyche of the killer, nor the plight of the people chasing him.

For the fans if historical fiction, I can recommend the first two books. But only as light entertainment. The descriptions of the era are very nice, and no doubt historically correct. However, it would be best to stop after the first two, because you can only get more of the same but less good.