The crookbacked lawyer whose talent for cutting through Tudor murk sees him pressed, by turns, into the service of Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Cranmer and finally Henry VIII's last queen, Catherine Parr, is our man on the inside. His is a 21st-century mind in a 16th-century body, a dichotomy deftly symbolised by his hunch: in an age before psychological realism, Shardlake must wear the detective's inevitable flaw on his person, rather than inside his head.
From his debut in Dissolution , when we watch him attempt to reconcile an intellectual sympathy for Cromwell's reformation with revulsion at the acts undertaken in its name, to his latest outing in Heartstone , where he finds himself in Portsmouth on the eve of a war with France which he can neither understand nor approve, Shardlake is a thoughtful, nuanced presence in a sea of religious zealotry, ignorance and superstition; of his time, but not blinkered by it.
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Inevitably, there are accusations that the presence of such a man in Tudor society is anachronistic, but Sansom waves them away. This is the age of the humanists; we're leaving medieval thought patterns behind.
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I'm not saying a man like Shardlake did exist then, but he could have, where even 20 years earlier he couldn't. That's enough for me. Born in , Christopher John Sansom grew up in Edinburgh, the only child of an English father and a Scottish mother. On the subject of his childhood he is brief, but manages in a few words to convey a sense of colourlessness: his family was "traditional Presbyterian"; his education took place at "a dreadful private school"; his parents weren't readers and the school, where "any sort of imagination was seen as rather naughty", didn't encourage an interest in books either.
Despite — or perhaps because of — being raised "in a very conservative household, with a small and a capital C", he underwent a political awakening in his teens that was to affect the path of his life. His own legal career eventually went on to inform Shardlake's, whose chambers in Lincoln's Inn become, over the course of the novels, a refuge; a place where logic, precedent and the written word prevail. Sansom's explanation of his decision to turn his detective into a barrister offers a neat illustration of the mix of passion and practicality that drives his writing.
First, the law was my profession: I find legal practice endlessly interesting. Second, it existed then and now, so it provides a point of contact for readers. And third, it's democratic: it offers a way into any number of mysteries, and puts Shardlake in the way of an endless variety of characters. Despite his dedication to the law, Sansom had "always wanted to write, but never had the physical energy to do it. A novel is a lot of work; a first novel most of all. It was a case of doing bits and bobs, going to writers' groups.
But I was waiting for the day — which I thought might not come until I retired — to write a book. I'd always thought the dissolution of the monasteries would make a great setting for a murder mystery. Like Umberto Eco's historical whodunit The Name of the Rose , of which Sansom is an admirer, Dissolution — set years later in the bitter winter of — is a classic closed-setting mystery.
When one of Thomas Cromwell's commissioners is gruesomely murdered in the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, he dispatches Shardlake to investigate. But the themes in Dissolution are very different: this is a book about the destruction of the monasteries. The barriers that the community has built around itself are crumbling: while for much of the book the monastery is cut off from the world, it is the weather, not the walls, that locks the suspects in.
By the final pages, the snow has melted — and the walls, too, have come down. The marshy ground uncovered by the retreating ice furnishes an effective metaphor for the treacherous political terrain, where footholds are few, and old paths cannot be relied on. Given this success, Sansom's next move was surprising. I thought, if Dissolution tanks, they won't want another Tudor detective, but if I have a go at something completely different that might do it.
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It's when we turn to Winter in Madrid , Sansom's taut second novel, that his talent for period detail becomes clear. A wartime thriller set in Franco's neutral Spain, it is written with the lightest of touches, the dialogue is persuasively clipped and the vocabulary is believable people are "touchy" and "peppery", and say "Oh, hell" when things go wrong. Critical reception of the novel was warm: writing in the Guardian, Laura Wilson called it "a tense, literate page-turner, full of twists, authentic detail and real pathos"; elsewhere it earned him comparisons with Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene.
But for Sansom, the novel was, and is, a personal endeavour. Studying the period, he was "appalled — by the way the Spanish people were treated by Franco's fascists, the church, the Spanish business and land-owning classes; by the way Spain was treated by the international powers; by how the Spanish people suffered afterwards, through Franco's oppression.
I wanted the book to be a tribute to them and what they went through. I also thought Madrid had had a raw deal.
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From George Orwell on, everyone who wrote about the war tended to concentrate on Barcelona, but Madrid was on the frontline for two-and-a-half years; the trenches were in the suburbs. Set in in the hottest summer of the century, amid the muck and clamour of London's streets, it is as roiling and overheated as Dissolution is icy and spare. A darker, more tangled tale — as well as culminating in the execution of Cromwell, it takes us through torture, child murder, treachery and death by fire — it also irons out some of the problems of the first novel, namely the sidekick. In Dissolution , Shardlake is accompanied by his apprentice, Mark, who absconds to Europe at the end of the novel.
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He is replaced in Dark Fire with the meatier, more engaging Barak. And I enjoyed creating Barak, whom I like enormously. He stands up to Shardlake; they're very different but they get on despite their quarrels. As well as the prickly sidekick, Shardlake shares another trait with detectives through the ages: deplorable luck with women.
Clare A. Lees, Ed. Xv, ; 16 Black-and-White Figures and 1 Map. Christie - - Speculum 90 1 Beach - - Speculum 91 1 Miquel Crusafont, Anna M. Todesca - - Speculum 90 3 Richardson, and Joanna Story, Eds. Ix, ; 4 Black-and-White Figures. Xii, ; 16 Black-and-White Figures.
James T. Xiv, ; 6 Black-and-White Figures and 2 Maps. Emmerson - - Speculum 90 2 Richard W. Kaeuper, Medieval Chivalry. Xv, ; 13 Black-and-White Figures. Bouchard - - Speculum 93 2 David Carpenter, Ed. And Trans. New York: Penguin Classics, Holt, Magna Carta.
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George Garnett and John Hudson. Xxii, ; 11 Black-and-White Figures. London: Hodder and Stoughton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, James G. Clark, Frank T. Coulson, and Kathryn L. McKinley, Eds. Xii, ; 21 Black-and-White Figures. Xi, ; 9 Black-and-White Figures and 1 Frontispiece.