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by C. J. Sanson
Viking, April 2003
336 pages
ISBN: 0670032034

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It was a time of distress, of change, when the old world was breaking apart and the new was being born. The only people enjoying it were Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, and the men Henry was prepared to reward with land. He had broken with the Pope, executed Anne Boleyn, and watched his third wife, Jane Seymour, die. He then ordered Cromwell to dissolve the monasteries, beginning with the smallest and weakest. When there was an uprising, he directed Cromwell to find a way to make the large monasteries voluntarily surrender. Henry and Cromwell were acting out of political and economic motives, machiavellian if you will. But many people truly believed in the Roman Catholic Church with all its tradition, its riches, and its ostentation, while others deemed this heresy and wished for the simple, the unadorned, the church speaking directly to the people.

Matthew Shardlake was one of the latter, a true believer in Reform, in the creation of a new church that, to his mind, more directly reflected the original Christianity than what had grown around the Catholic Church. He was an agent of Thomas Cromwell, the man charged with eradicating all traces of Catholicism in the English church. To persuade the monasteries to voluntarily surrender, Cromwell blackmailed them with evidence of sexual sins, fine living, and other abominations. Robin Singleton had been sent to the wealthy monastery of Scarnsea on the English Channel to force the abbot to surrender. Singleton was murdered and Shardlake, a hunchback, with his young protégé, was ordered by Cromwell to find the murderer soon.

Sanson describes the monastery as a closed society, inbred, arrogant, one that had abandoned most of the rules St. Benedict had decreed. The weather when Shardlake arrived was terrible, cold and snow that nearly isolated the monastery making it even more sequestered. Terrible things were happening within these walls, and Shardlake was baffled for quite some time.

The history in this story is exceptional. Sanson shows the clash between old and new and makes the reader understand the grays in the situation. Neither side was all right; neither all wrong. The new men rewarded by Henry with monastic lands would lay the foundation for England¹s wealth and her representative type of government, but the poor, the monks, those who had worked in the monasteries were ravaged by these actions. The reader has sympathy for everyone and understands how Shardlake, a man of true belief, might easily become disillusioned. He and those like him sought to create a Christian Commonwealth and ultimately got, instead, the modern amoral nation state. The transformation of the European world is mirrored in the events of this small corner of England.

However, this book is also an outstanding mystery. The ³whodunit² takes center stage at all times against the historical background. And Shardlake even muses that he would have solved the mystery sooner had he not been so fervent about religion. The murders of four people are solved to the reader¹s satisfaction and the results of that discovery also seem sufficient.

This book is full of well-developed characters, beginning with Shardlake and continuing to the monks, several townspeople, Cromwell, and Mark, the protégé. They are believable and three dimensional human beings with blind spots and foolishness, with courage and love. Even the villains are gray, not black or white.

The writing is very good as well. The images are colorful, illuminating, and memorable. Sanson is particularly good at reminding the reader of the odors of the past including the fact that most monks rarely bathed. It is a very realistic book.

This is a first novel and will certainly be on my list of best firsts for 2003.

Reviewed by Sally A. Fellows, April 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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