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by C. J. Sansom
Macmillan, November 2004
384 pages
ISBN: 1405005440

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

C J Sansom created one of my all-time favourite crime novels with the stunning DISSOLUTION, set amidst the reign of Henry VIII and starring lawyer Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback with a sharp tongue. I can report that the follow-up DARK FIRE is equally electric.

It's three years since Matthew solved the mystery at the creepy monastery in Scarnsea. He's been keeping his head down and concentrating on building up business as a lawyer. But then he is called on to defend a teenage girl who is accused of murdering her cousin -- and this brings him into contact once more with Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's right-hand man.

Cromwell, whose position is looking increasingly uncertain as Henry wants to be shot of yet another wife, needs Matthew to recover the lethal Greek Fire -- the much-coveted substance which can wipe out armies and navies. But the official, who claims to have tracked down the formula in the library of a dissolved London monastery, turns up dead, along with his alchemist brother. Matthew has 12 days to find the deadly product before it is demonstrated in front of the king.

You'll have to understand that this is an elaborate, rich feast of a book that's not be hurried. Sansom's research is phenomenal . . . he works in fascinating little asides that in no way slow up the action. There are the false teeth taken from corpses and anchored into jaws by wood. And then there's the whore branded with a W on her cheek who had ashes rubbed into the wound to stop it fading. You truly are transported to baking hot 1540s London as Matthew battles against the clock to find out whether Elizabeth Wentworth murdered her young cousin and to discover just why so many corpses are littered along his path as he searches for the Greek Fire.

Sansom does an outstanding job of presenting a huge cast of characters and ensuring they stick in the reader's mind. There's a welcome reappearance for Guy Malton, last seen as a monk at Scarnsea, and now working as an apothecary in London. And Matthew has a new sidekick in the form of the foul-mouthed Jack Barak, forced on him by Cromwell but who turns out to be a good man to have on your side.

DARK FIRE is intelligent, rich and multi-layered writing. It deserves to win lorryloads of awards and to reach an audience far outside of the genre boundaries. And it would make captivating drama if someone were brave enough to film it.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, February 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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