Heartstone by C. J. Sansom
22 December, 2011
It’s been several years since I read the last of C.J. Sansom’s wonderful historical mysteries featuring Matthew Shardlake, the hunchback lawyer, but as soon as I opened the first page of Heartstone, I was transported once again to the dark and dangerous times of Henry VIII’s England.
In Shardlake’s fourth outing, he is entreated by Queen Catherine Parr, Henry’s 6th wife, to look into a case at the King’s Court of Wards on behalf of one of her servants. Her son, a tutor to orphaned Hugh Curteys and his sister, had been trying to fight for justice against a man who had bought their wardship and who he suspects of maltreating and stealing from them. The Court of Wards is a corrupt beast formed specifically to bring in revenue for Henry VIII, and as the danger from France increases, things become dangerous for Shardlake as Barak, his trusted servant has caught the ire of a soldier and is conscripted into the army. As his wife is about to give birth to their first child, Matthew takes up Queen Catherine’s case and proceeds to go to Portsmouth to investigate, taking Barak with him and out of the clutches of the army.
But Shardlake isn’t going to Portsmouth just to look into the case of the wards. He also wants to delve into the past of his friend, who has been locked up in Bedlam for nineteen years following a rape and the loss of her father in a town near Portsmouth. He is hoping his discoveries will reveal exactly what happened all those years ago and ultimately set her free.
All this is happening as the British army and navy are preparing for a French invasion in retaliation to Henry VIII’s disastrous siege of Boulogne. Shardlake must not only solve the two mysteries but also try and avoid any further entanglements with his King and his advisors, the snake-like Sir Richard Rich and Sir Thomas Seymour, who are out to humiliate him.
Now this is how you write a historical mystery. There’s detail, there’s danger, the plot is thrilling and there is a brilliant twist in the tale. I’ve been a huge fan of Sansom’s since his first Shardlake novel, Dissolution, was published and also loved Winter in Madrid, about the Spanish Civil War.
At the heart of this mystery is a family hiding a terrible secret that has crushed everyone from within yet keeps them tragically bound together. Sansom explores the nature of greed, love and freedom without simplifying things and there is an underlying gravitas to the tragedy alleviated only by the absurdity of history.