by C.J. Sansom
Every fiction writer not only has to bring the setting of his work to life, but must convince the reader that the story and characters make sense for that time and place. For writers who choose to write about the distant past, this usually requires a great deal of research, in order to ensure that both the plot and dialogue are believable in the context of that time period, as well as to avoid any anachronisms. (You can’t have an 18th century murderer being found guilty by a jury as a result of DNA testing, to give a blatant example.) Revelation (Viking, 2009), C. J. Sansom’s fourth novel featuring Matthew Shardlake, is a model for aspiring historical novelists and an enormous pleasure for historical fiction readers. Set during the last years of the reign of Henry VIII, Sansom uses the beliefs and events of the time to create an exciting (and occasionally gruesome) mystery. Court politics and serial murder both come within Shardlake’s purview in Revelation.
The year is 1543, and King Henry VIII, desperately in love with the widowed Catherine Parr, is hoping to make her his sixth wife. While the machinations of a royal courtship – and one with deep consequences for the religious life of England – proceed, a particularly vicious killer, who is taking his cues from the biblical Book of Revelation, sets off on his murderous path, with his first victim being one of Matthew’s closest friends, a fellow lawyer. At the same time, Matthew is representing the interests of a young man whose religious fervor has gotten him locked up in Bedlam, and whose release might mean that he’s burned at the stake by the conservatives fighting for domination of the Church of England. When I finished this mystery, I felt that I knew enough about 16th century London not only to be able to find my way around that rapidly growing city, but that I qualified for an advanced degree in Tudor history. I’m in awe of Sansom’s talents as an historical novelist. This is the first of the Shardlake novels that I’ve read, but Samsom includes enough of his main character’s backstory in this volume so as to make that not a problem. I was, however, left with enough curiosity that I’ve put the three earlier books in the series on reserve at the library and am eagerly waiting for them to arrive.