By: C.J. Sansom
Published by: Penguin Books, 2004

This book was shared with me by my son. After a few chapters I thought, "Ok, here comes a Catholics-as-evildoers book," along the lines of Dan Brown's books, only better written and researched.

I was wrong.

C.J. Sansom has created a thoughtful, detailed historic murder mystery in which villains and heros come in all shapes and sizes - and cross all philosophical and political boundaries.

Our hero is Matthew Shardlake, a young man who happens to have a hunchback. While we don't dig too deeply into his feelings about his deformity, I suspect that this aspect of character will be explored in books to come - this book is just our introduction to Matthew Shardlake, Tudor-era crime solver.

The Tudor period can't help but fascinate - and frighten. The threat of horrible physical punishment was somehow in vogue, and was used liberally to keep people in line. (I can only be slightly amused at our current squeamishness about waterboarding, when compared with the much more inventive and infinitely more horrific tortures of the past, particularly this era. If these punishments were "torture," it seems to strain credibility to put waterboarding in the same category.)

It is no doubt the excesses of the Princes of this era that lead directly to the Enlightenment, which follows roughly 100 years later. Absolute monarchs with absolute power, these rulers saw in the moral and philosophical rebellion against the excesses of the Church their moment to wrest power - and money and property - from that institution by capitalizing on the righteous disgust of the people over such abuses as selling indulgences, and the accumulation of wealth and lordly appetites of supposed religious leaders.

Henry VIII is the archetype of this two-faced behavior - of course because his reasons for breaking away from Rome were so much more transparent than his peers. While the German princes quietly urged the Reformation on, Henry threw his considerable weight around openly for the obvious reason that he was tired of his wife and wanted another.

The power behind the throne in this regard, Thomas Cromwell, was busy playing a dangerous game of his own. He truly wanted to destroy the Church's power in England, and bring about religious reform. A pragmatist, Cromwell enabled Henry, and played footsie with the German princes to try to bring them into alliance with England, effectively sealing the end of Rome's power on English soil. Meanwhile, he moves full steam ahead with the destruction of monasteries, the burning of Catholics, and the creation of a new Church of England.

It is in this setting of intrigue, torture, religious foment, and frank misery that C.J. Sansom tells his routine little murder mystery, which just happens to take place at one of the few remaining large monasteries in England.

A commissioner has been dispatched (in all senses of the word): one Commissioner Singleton has been sent to investigate the Scarnsea Monastery in Sussex, and is found murdered - his head neatly, squarely, severed at the neck.

Cromwell sends Matthew Shardlake and his assistant, Mark Poer, to find out what happened.

Matthew has the heart of a reformer, and he is working for Cromwell because he believes Cromwell shares his worldview and vision for the future. He comes to the monastery prepared to find what he does, in fact, find: fat, decadent, self-indulgent monks who give lipservice to the Reforms, but whose days are numbered.

What he actually discovers is a bit more complicated, and, unfortunately, a lot more PC and predictable.

The most admirable character is a Moorish monk from Spain, Brother Guy, the infirmarian. His assistant is the inevitable "well-made" girl, Alice. Brother Gabriel, the choir master, is gay. Jerome, the Carthusian monk, is a religious fanatic. The abbot is a fat, cigar-smoking Republican... no wait, that's another book. But in truth, the characters are a collection of requisite "types," all of whom behave pretty much according to script.

No sooner do Matthew and Mark arrive at the monastery than another murder occurs, and then another  - and nobody is clear of suspicion. I was only fooled about the perpetrator for a couple of chapters - but I was sustained to the end by the detail of day to day life in Tudor England, as well as the author's clear knowledge of the political forces at play during the period.

Sansom makes one odd choice - and I'm not sure whether I like it or not - to mix the language of the dialog: it is both modern and medieval, and I found myself paying too much attention to it because of that.

Even though you'll likely guess the killer long before Matthew does - and without the skilled clue scattering some writers of this genre bring to their books - Sansom does allow his characters to occupy that real-human-being space between good and bad, honest and dishonest, flawed and decent. You come away liking some of them, and willing to continue your acquaintance.

He's not Aloysius Pendergast (my favorite sleuth), but Matthew Shardlake will do.


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