By C.J. Sansom.
Viking. 634 pp. $27.95
Good, solid, enjoyable novels are blessedly common, but exceptional, knock-your-socks-off novels are rare. I count myself lucky if I stumble upon two or three a year. But now I've devoured two in one month, both by British writers I'd not read before. The first, reviewed here recently, was Peter James's perverse tale of sexual obsession and expensive shoes, "Dead Like You." Now we have "Heartstone," the fifth book in C.J. Sansom's series about an idealistic lawyer who seeks justice in a violent age, mid-16th-century England.
The lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, is 43 years old during this story, which is set in the summer of 1545. He's also a hunchback, a widower and exceedingly trouble-prone. Early in the novel, Shardlake visits two women whose needs set the story in motion. The first, Ellen, has long been confined in Bedlam, the madhouse, under mysterious circumstances; Shardlake is determined to help her if he can. The other is Queen Catherine Parr, who had been his friend before she had the dubious honor of becoming the last of Henry VIII's six, mostly ill-starred wives. Catherine asks the lawyer to investigate the apparent suicide of the son of one of her former housekeepers.
Sansom, who is himself a lawyer, has won praise in England for his microscopic knowledge of 16th-century life. Certainly, one of the novel's glories is his ability to bring alive all levels of English society, from cutthroats and common soldiers to the king and queen themselves. Shardlake's investigations take place as a huge French fleet is sailing toward Portsmouth, on England's south coast, and an invasion seems imminent. (This is part of Henry's ill-advised war of 1544-46.) Sansom contrives to have Shardlake's legal work take him to the vicinity of Portsmouth, so that on his ride south he becomes friendly with a vivid array of soldiers who bicker, brawl and "sing bawdy versions of courtly love songs." The author spices his narrative with convincing details and dialogue from that most unruly era. For example, there's the soldier who declares that a man "should experience everything once, save incest and the plague."
Shardlake's investigation of the possible suicide - undertaken at the queen's request - leads to Hugh Curtey, a youth who, upon his parents' death, became the ward of a landowner named Hobbey. Shardlake suspects that Hobbey is robbing the boy of his inheritance. Clearly, something is terribly wrong in the Hobbey household, but neither Shardlake nor the reader can puzzle out what evil abides there, even after the half-mad mistress of the house cries out, "You fool! You do not see what is right in front of you!" When the truth finally emerges, it is both unexpected and unsettling.
Young Hugh runs away to volunteer as an archer in the English cause, which leads Shardlake to Portsmouth as the army gathers. Here the king arrives: "When I had seen him four years before he had been big, but now his body was vast, legs like tree trunks in golden hose sticking out from the horse's side. . . . The deep-set little eyes, beaky nose, and small mouth were now surrounded by a great square of fat that seemed to press his features into the center of his head. . . . In that grotesque face I thought I read pain and weariness, and something more. Fear? I wondered if even that man of titanic self-belief might think, as the French invasion force approached, what will happen now? Even, perhaps: What have I done?"
The novel has it all: an ingenious plot, ceaseless suspense, villains galore, tipsy priests, a bull-baiting, a stag hunt, several murders, the horrors of war, a brooding sense of evil and a glittering portrait of a fascinating age. I rank it with Iain Pears's "An Instance of the Fingerpost" (1998) among the very best of recent historical thrillers. Finishing it, I longed for the leisure to go back and read the previous Shardlake adventures, but my thoughts also turned to those still to come. Early in this novel, when the lawyer meets with Queen Catherine, he also chats with 11-year-old Lady Elizabeth - Henry's daughter by second wife, Anne Boleyn - a girl who no one imagines will one day become queen. She proves to be a precocious child who questions the lawyer about the difficulties of achieving justice in this world. (Her concern is understandable, given that her father had her mother's head chopped off and the girl herself declared illegitimate.) The cordial exchange between Shardlake and young Elizabeth suggests the possibility of a future alliance. Henry will soon die, and a bloody decade or so later, Elizabeth will miraculously become queen. Perhaps in future novels Shardlake will advise the young woman during her perilous march to power. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.