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by C. J. Sansom
Macmillan, April 2008
452 pages
17.99 GBP
ISBN: 1405092726

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

It is 1543 and at the end of Lent, London is uneasy. Signs and portents are everywhere. The division between the radical religious reformers and the conservatives, who prefer a Church resembling Roman Catholicism without the Pope, is becoming more acute. Henry VIII, who several years ago publically mocked the hunchback Shardlake for his deformity, now suffers from stinking ulcers and must be trundled around his palace in a wheeled chair. Nevertheless, he is anxious to marry the unwilling Catherine Parr.

In this atmosphere, Shardlake is quite content to be out of politics and looking after his law practice in Lincoln's Inn. But when his good friend is horribly murdered, Shardlake is drawn back into the heady world of power as the only way to find the murderer.

It soon becomes clear that this murder is but part of a series, each more horrific than the last and all inspired by the Book of Revelations. Matthew, Barak, and the Moorish doctor, Guy, embark on an increasingly puzzling and dangerous investigation that threatens to be their last.

The construction of an ingenious murder plot is not Sansom's strong suit; the evocation of a particularly complex and fascinating historical period is. As was true of the previous three novels in this series, the reader is immediately plunged into the sights, smells, preoccupations, and passions of the latter years of Henry's reign.

Of particular interest is the difficulty the characters have in finding a conceptual framework in which to understand madness. Conditions for which we have developed diagnoses if not necessarily effective cures were for the Tudors mysterious both in origin and meaning. Is Matthew's young and desperate client, Adam, who prays without ceasing and at the top of his lungs, terrified that he is damned, clinically depressed as Guy believes, or an arrogant religious radical worthy of being burnt as a heretic? Is the Book of Revelations murderer merely mad or possessed by the devil?

In this welter of religious intensity and excess, Matthew, the former radical reformer and assistant to Thomas Cromwell, finds that he has lost his taste for zealotry and perhaps his faith itself.

The best historical novelists, and Sansom is certainly one of the best, are able not simply to recreate the past but bring us to understand why it matters. The parallels between Matthew's age and our own are loose but pressing. Sansom never forces them on us, but by the end of the book, they are impossible to ignore.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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