By Ink Alone: Revelation-16th Century Murder Mysteries are Fun
by Matt Stevens
CJ Sansom, a British historian turned mystery novelist released his fourth Matthew Shardlake mystery in February and it proves once again to be an engrossing and excellent historical murder story. I first discovered Shardlake and Sansom when I was wandering aimlessly through used book stores in Singapore during my 23 hour stopover there. I grabbed the third Shardlake book Sovereign which I finished by the time I my flight landed in India. When I had returned back to the US, I quickly ripped through books 1 and 2, Dissolution and Dark Fire. Sadly, I was only able to get my hands on Revelation a couple weeks ago.
Sansom’s stories revolve around the lawyer Mathew Shardlake, an experienced (but not old) lawyer in the early 16th century who continues to get caught up in murder mysteries. They usually involve heavy political and religious overtones as this is during the reign of King Henry VIII and his push away from the Catholic Church and the creation of the Church of England.
Viking Adult (February 5, 2009)
Sansom’s book reminded me slightly of the The Left Behind series and also of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. In this version, Shardlake, our lawyer and detective who is cunning but a “crookback” encounters his good friend who has been murdered and left for display in the Lincoln’s Inn, the court where the lawyers have their offices. The murder is quickly hushed up by the King’s Coroner but Shardlake is apart of the detective team to get to the bottom of the problem. Shardlake is a former hot gospeller or reformist who was an avid Protestant. But he has slipped away. The coroner, Harsnet is a new found and devout reformist and they are working with two more famous nobles who are unimportant for this review. Initially they fear that the murders are connected to threats about Jane Seymour, she who has recently caught the King’s eye. But upon some investigation, they quartet discover that the murders are in fact a plot to live out some symbolism of The Book of Revelation.
The murderer uses the seven vials and their imagery from the Book of Revelation to kill seven different people. At the end of the book, he also sets his eyes on two rather prominent individuals to kill as well as the seven vials. His targets are all fallen reformers; individuals who sought to reform the church to the Protestant Ways, but have fallen and are no longer serious reformers. As we learn early in the book, Shardlake was himself a reformer but years ago moved away and is not as apolitical as he can be.
Sansom as always does a great job setting up the book and is imagery is fantastic. By giving Shardlake an interesting fellow detective (Harsnet) who is plodding, slow and a bit stuck on the murder being possessed by the Devil, we see a more interesting detective. Shardlake does not suffer from moments of epiphany, we get to follow his thought processes and we as readers can be annoyed as he misses different clues that we ourselves can pickup. Sansom’s writing is also quite grim and bleak. We get a full view of the racism and elitism of the age; we understand the death and the horrible misunderstandings that plagued the doctors and mental patients of the time.
Sansom’s best trait might be his realism, his ability to paint a realistic, dirty, muddy, smelly scene that is interesting, but one I’m glad I can read while sitting on a couch with smooth jazz on the radio and not walking down the muddy streets with people dumping out their chamber pots on to my head.
Four out of Five Melons!