Our book today is Lamentation by C. J. Sansom, the latest of his books to feature the sleuthing adventures of his hunchback Tudor-era lawyer Matthew Shardlake, following Heartstone way back in 2010. This series began with the quietly wonderful 2003 novel Dissolution, and all the strengths so abundantly on display in that first book have ripened nicely book by book. In this latest novel, they’re all on clear display: the prickly character of Shardlake himself, his complicated and constantly-evolving personal life and professional dealings at his Inn of Court, and the confident evocation of the Tudor world, which starts right at the beginning of Lamentation when Shardlake is forced to stand in the crowd and witness the death-by-burning of notorious heretic Anne Askew and three of her fellow prisoners.
The scene is graphically described, and Shardlake’s later reflection on it, though deeply anachronistic, is equally vivid:
“I was there. They made a vast spectacle of it, Bishop Gardiner and half the Privy Council watching from a great covered stage. Treasurer Rowland made me go; Secretary Paget wanted a representative from each of the Inns. So I sat and watched four people burn in agony because they would not believe as King Henry said they should. At least they hung gunpowder round their necks; their heads were eventually blown off. And yes, when I was there, I felt the ground shift beneath me again, like the deck of that foundering ship.”
The year is 1546, and King Henry VIII is dying. His court is convulsed in a chaos of competing factions, many of which are keeping a predatory eye on Henry’s sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr, who sends her agent William Cecil to solicit Shardlake’s help because a potentially-deadly intrigue has recently snared her: a portion of a doctrinally explosive manuscript that was in her possession has been stolen, and she needs Shardlake’s help to find it before it’s used to send her to the block.
Shardlake has always had a quasi-romantic soft spot for the queen, dating back to when she was merely Lady Latimer, so despite the fact that he’s already embroiled in a complex law case at his Inn (Sansom dramatizes legal machinery with a skill that would put most contemporary legal-thriller authors to shame), he saddles up to the Queen’s aid – and of course Sansom wouldn’t be the professional he is if the two cases didn’t end up being intricately connected.
There’s a darker shade of worldliness to Lamentation than any of the previous novels, probably because Sansom is allowing the book to reflect the times in which it’s set, black and dangerous years when a tyrant was dying and the only thing anybody could guess about the future was that it would be much worse even than the present. “If only we could all find the essence of true godliness, which is piety, charity, unity,” one character wistfully says at one point. “As well wish for the moon” Shardlake snidely replies.
These are very dense, very rewarding novels – so much so that I was too eager for the newest one to wait until the finished hardcover reached me (I gobbled it up the earliest electronic version I could reach). If you haven’t tried the series yet, find a copy of Dissolution and treat yourself.
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