Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

This is the second novel by C.J. Sansom, also featuring Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer of Tudor London. The time is late May, 1540, and Henry VIII is unhappy with his marriage to Anne of Cleves--wife number 4. He has already fallen in love with 17 year old Katherine Howard, and London is preparing for another shift in permissible religious observance.

Matthew Shardlake is a property lawyer who works at Lincoln's Inn. He was originally an enthusiastic reformer who welcomed the "new religion" and the break with Rome. However, the reality of reform has fallen far short of his hopes, and he has lost his zeal for reform. Somehow, he has gotten himself involved in a murder case, in which a young girl is accused of pushing her cousin down a well. Her uncle does not believe she is guilty, but she refuses to speak. Refusal to plead either "guilty" or "not guilty" means that she will be sentenced to pressing, where the prisoner is placed under a board and rocks are heaped on until she speaks or dies.

Shardlake is surprisingly granted twelve days to convince the girl to speak. It turns out that this is because Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII, needs Shardlake to take on a mission for him. Cromwell is a real historical figure, who came to power while Henry was trying to divorce his first wife to marry Ann Boleyn. He was instrumental in arranging the king's marriage to the Protestant Anne of Cleves, and his position in 1540 was precarious as a result.

In the novel, someone has re-discovered the secret of "Greek fire," a burning liquid weapon that can even be used on water. They demonstrated it for Cromwell, who then informed the king. King Henry wants to use it to defend England from attacks by France and Spain. However, the men who demonstrated this weapon have been murdered, and the Greek fire has disappeared. Cromwell needs Shardlake to find the missing substance in time for the planned demonstration for the king. In twelve days.

What Sansom does so well is use this mystery to illumine life in Tudor England--the smells (horrible), the prejudice, the plotting and conspiracy, the hopes for the new religious thought, the status of women, the limited scientific knowledge, the practice of law. All of these play a part in the solving of the mystery, but never over-shadow it. We see the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor, we see the wealth of the monasteries being distributed to those who are already wealthy, we see the plight of the underclass. Shardlake moves from the bear pits and brothels of Southwark to the halls of Westminster and Whitehall as he tries to find the missing Greek fire while also saving his client from being pressed to death.

Closely plotted, the novel takes place over the twelve days ending on June 10, 1540--which is the day that Thomas Cromwell was arrested (for real!) and taken to the Tower of London on trumped up charges of treason. Sansom uses the deadline well, as leads proliferate and then dry up, and some things take longer than they should because travel and communication in 16th century London are much slower than we are used to. No one can pick up a phone and dial 999 for emergency assistance, or call a missing witness on their cell phone. Even travelling from Southwark to Lincoln's Inn requires walking to the river, finding a ferry, crossing the river, then retrieving the horse from the stables for the ride across the city. Coupled with Shardlake's physical limitations, this is not a high-speed thriller, but one where the mystery has to be unravelled deliberately and efficiently.

If there is a drawback to this book, it's that it is unlikely that a man as powerful as Cromwell would rely on a single man to solve the mystery--especially with the stakes as high as they are. Sure, he assigns his assistant Jack Barak to help Shardlake, but it isn't realistic that they are the only two men in London Cromwell would use to investigate.

That quibble aside, this is a much more satisfying read than Sansom's debut, "Dissolution." The writing smoothly blends the historical information into the plot. Many of the characters are atual historic figures, and they are fully integrated into the plot--not just cameo appearances to give some "educational substance" to the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and am looking forward to reading the third book in the series: "Sovereign."

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