Book review - the Shardlake novels


I've basically spent the last 2 weeks inhaling two really, really good crime/mystery novels by C. J. Sansom. They're set in the Tudor period of Henry VIII, and they feature a talented hunchback lawyer called Matthew Shardlake and a variety of pretty gruesome crimes that he has to get to the bottom of for Thomas Cromwell. I reviewed both of them for Goodreads, and am doing a combined effort here. I think this is my new favourite crime series - possibly toppling even Robert Galbraith's Cormoran Strike novels. If you like Tudor novels or mysteries, you really can't miss out on these. They're just great, and I want to read the whole series of 6 so far in one go (but may restrain myself).

Dissolution was his first novel, and it's really, really good. There are only a few signs that give it away, and none of them were awful. The writing is a little bit rough around the edges maybe, but the structure and the plot are really accomplished. He builds suspense very cleverly and keeps the reader guessing but not frustrated.

The book is like a Cadfael mystery but in reverse - Shardlake is sent with his ward/assistant Mark by Thomas Cromwell in the middle of a terrible winter in 1537 to investigate the murder of an official who went to convince a monastery to close. But obviously it becomes much more complicated than that pretty quickly.

The second Shardlake mystery is Dark Fire, and I think Sansom really hits his stride with this one and you don't necessarily have to have read the first one to enjoy it. It's set in a sweltering London Summer in 1640, civil unrest is high, Thomas Cromwell's fortunes are waning and Shardlake, a hunchback and a talented and morally upright lawyer, is caught in the middle of many unpleasant factions while trying to defend a girl from a familial murder charge and solve an even darker and more dangerous mystery. It involves alchemy and a potentially very valuable discovery of some kind of liquid fire.

Sansom is a really accomplished crime writer and a good historical one. Perhaps not quite Wolf Hall good but at least The Other Boleyn Girl good. But he's incredible at plotting - this is a really complex book and it's structured very well indeed. There aren't too many standard crime tropes, there's quite a bit of action and violence and chasing (helped by the rough historical setting), it keeps you guessing but also like you could guess it if you were really clever. This is important as it makes the eventual reveal more satisfying - he doesn't go in for cheap twists that you couldn't have guessed, and he doesn't do too much of keeping you in suspense once Shardlake has figured it out (not like Arthur Conan Doyleetc.)

There are a few bugbears in the writing - he has a funny vocabulary that very occasionally jarred me, but this one is much better written than Dissolution. Shardlake's character is still one of the highlights - he's just very interesting and nuanced and quite emotional, but never feels historically inaccurate (sometimes protagonists in historical fiction feel too modern to appeal to readers, which I don't like). He has his own faults and prejudices, but he strives to do the right thing and be a good person, whatever that might mean. Crime writing dies or lives on its protagonist and Shardlake just has personality in spades. This book also teams him up with an equally likeable but very different sidekick, Jack Barak, and their dynamic is great. I honestly can't wait to read more of these books.