Thursday, August 20, 2009

Revelation, by C.J. Sansom

The fourth of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, starring the hunchback lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII. This one is set in 1543, and the king has set his sights on the recently widowed Lady Latymer, or as we know her, Catherine Parr.

The king's health is failing, and his ulcerated sores make him nearly immobile and increasingly fat. His pending mortality is obvious and may be the reason he continues to retreat from religious reform. Of course, the cat has already been released from the bag, and various forms of congregations have sprung up from the most conservative "Catholics without the Pope," to the "Hot Gospelers" who focus on pre-destination and are smug in their own perceived purity. The King is trying to return the country to old forms of worship, but it's already too late.

As a reward for his previous service, Shardlake has been appointed as counsel to the Court of Requests, a sort of civil court for poor people. Shardlake has been happily handing the cases assigned to him, and when the novel opens he has a case of a boy who has been placed in Bedlam by the privy council. Young Adam Kite has been praying for a sign he has been saved, and has made a spectacle of himself, demonstrating the new religion at a time when the old forms are ascendant. So the Privy Council has him shut up in Bedlam to keep things as quiet as possible.

Then an old friend of Shardlake's is found with his throat cut in the frountain at Lincoln's Inn and the inquest is cut short. Out of loyalty to his friend and love for the widow, Shardlake vows to find the killer. Of course, things are never simple in Tudor London--Archbishop Cranmer has ordered the inquest to be closed because there is concern that this murder might be linked to another that points to a threat to Catherine Parr. And Cranmer wants her to marry Henry because she is a reformer and the cause needs someone like that to influence the king.

Once again, Shardlake is caught up in politics against his will. Although this time the politics are really in the background. Sure, Cranmer is under attack by more conservative religious members of the Privy Council, but there is no sense that this case will have any effect on that. There is a whiff of strategic positioning: Henry is old and ill, and whoever is in a position to serve as Regent to the boy Edward is going to have a great deal of control over the religion of the country. Catherine Parr, as a Reformer herself, would be in a good position to advance the new religion after Henry's death--if she survives him. But the existence of a psychopathic murderer really doesn't affect those considerations, and so the link to the broader history of the time is much weaker here than in the earlier books.

Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the killer is not political, but a religious psychopath, killing repeatedly in ways suggested by the Book of Revelations, his victims former reformers who have become backsliders. This is where the book becomes gruesome--an "Angels and Demons" for renaissance England. Corpses are found mutilated and tortured--although arguably these deaths are no more gory than the Tudor penchant for burning heretics alive, as well as drawing and quartering and other judicial tortures. The peaceful expressions on the victims' faces lead to the conclusion that they were given a sedative before they were killed, which turns the focus onto the former infirmarians at Westminster Abbbey as the only persons in London who had the knowledge to administer such drugs.

Matthew Shardlake and his strongman Jack Barak are lead this time by the Assistant Coroner of London, himself a "Gospel man" and reformer, and are assisted at times by Sir Thomas Seymour, a real historical personage who had his own interest in Catherine Parr. We are treated to death by multiple stab wounds and resultant infection (also flesh eating maggots--ewwwww); immolation; vitriol burns and tongue mutilation; a naked corpse nailed across a water gate; a corpse with tiny nails imbedded in its face to simulate a smile; as well as some garden variety stab wounds and beatings--the extras thrown in to cover the murderer's trail.

A surprising number of "clues" turn out to be false--the killer is supposed to be tremendously strong, but it turns out he has a wheelbarrow. He is preternaturally informed about people's religious and social lives, but it turns out he has paid informants and also cases his victims while in disguise. He seems to have a great deal of medical and legal knowledge, but this turns out to be exaggerated. He seems to have particular animosity toward lapsed reformers--I still don't know why that is the case, since in the end it turns out he was formerly a monk. Perhaps that was explained in a part that I missed by falling asleep while listening.

Sansom does illuminate what it must have been like to have been caught in that time of theological debate. From where we sit nearly 500 years later, we tend to see Hanry's break with Rome as being purely an expedient to get rid of his old wife and get a new trophy wife. But the "new religion" was more than a question of whether the Pope has jurisdiction over the King of England. And once the Bible was widely available in English, there were suddenly a wide variety of interpretations. Breaking with Rome was one thing, creating a new theology was another. In fact, a truly "Anglican" form of worship was not created until the reign of Edward VI. So religious uncertainty was added to the other uncertainties of Henry's reign. It was a dangerous time to live, and one of great economic disparity and harsh criminal laws and penalties.

Still, somehow the book didn't quite work for me. Maybe it was just too much of a plot to leave much room for the broader social picture. A serial killer with a literary bent and a long list of murders to complete is really quite enough--just ask Dan Brown. The religious issues felt rather distant--the murders were not really believably about the religious issues of the time, but about one crazy man's God complex, which is far from unique to Tudor England.

Add to that that some of the mechanics of the book stood out for me this time. Once again, Matthew Shardlake "has feelings" for a woman, but doesn't tell her about them because he thinks no one could love a hunchback. Then something happens so that he "dares to hope" but ultimately he gets shot down. Maybe having a real love interest, or none at all? This device is getting old.

I was also more aware of the numerous times the characters stop and reiterate what is happening in the plot, either alone or in conversation. "Could it be. . .? But what about. . .? Maybe it's another person? But how could it be someone else when. . .?" Again, a place where reading the book would have allowed me to skip over the tedious recapping, which was much harder to do with an audiobook.

I have enjoyed these books as fictionalized history, using the device of a mystery to animate a fascinating time. This time around, it seems the mystery took pride of place over the historical atmosphere, and that's what I missed the most.

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