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.

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My love affair with mysteries began with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I was living in Bangkok as a child, and opposite our street (Sukhumvit Soi 12) was a small English language bookshop called Asia Bookstore. I don’t know if it still exists but it was my favourite place in Thailand. Because English books were prime commodities in the thriving ex-pat community, I was rationed books. Luckily I went to a British school that had a huge library so I was well stocked.

I discovered Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie on a dusty bookshelf in my grandparents’ house on while on a trip to Sri Lanka when I was nine. The book was wedged between an old picture diary of my mother’s from when she was seven (I don’t know how it got there from Japan) and some Sinhalese books. Awaiting me at the end of the novel was the biggest shock of my life. I was totally flabbergasted and unprepared for the identity of the murderer. I went back through the book picking out the clues and red herrings and was hooked on Christie ever since. It was then only a matter of time before I started reading Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers.

It was when I was at boarding school in the UK that I chanced upon Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael mystery The Rose Rent in the school library. Of course, what first drew me to the book was the title. How romantic and mysterious it seemed. I was then fifteen and was gutted that I was unable to study medieval and tudor English history for GCSE. Our syllabus was all about the two world wars. So I leapt into Peters’ medieval world and was entranced by the images and names from that period. And so my love affair with historical mysteries began. It’s funny how now I can’t get enough of the interwar period.

Crime and Mysteries

Ellis Peters (Brother Cadfael series)
Lindsey Davis (Falco series)
Paul Doherty (Brother Athelstan series, Hugh Corbett series, White Rose Murders – Tudor mysteries)
Elizabeth Eyre (Rennaissance series)
Candace Robb (Apothecary Rose – Owen Archer series)
Deanna Raybourn (Julia Grey mysteries)
Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody series)
Susanna Gregory (Matthew Bartholomew series)
Dorothy L. Sayers (Lord Peter Wimsey series)
Agatha Christie (Poirot, Miss Marple, Harlequin)
Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn mysteries)
Margery Allingham (Campion mysteries)
Umberto Eco (Foucault’s Pendulum, The Name of the Rose)
Caleb Carr (The Alienist, The Angel of Darkness)
Eliott Pattison (Inspector Shan Tibetan mysteries)
Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child (Agent Pendergast series)
John Dunning (Bookman series)
Eleanor Updale (Montmorency series)
Christopher Fowler (Bryant & May series)
David Roberts (Lord Edward Corinth & Verity Browne series)
Seishi Yokomizo (Kindaichi Kousuke series – in Japanese only)
Akimitsu Takagi (The Tattoo Murder Mystery)

As I’ve been reading murder mysteries for an insanely long time, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some important titles. I think I caught the first wave of popular historical mysteries with Ellis Peters, Paul Doherty, Candace Robb and others. I spent many a happy hour looking for exciting new titles at the Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road which sadly closed it’s bookshop this year, but the business is still ongoing and they have an excellent mail order service. Now there’s a second wave with the rising popularity of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Sheldrake series beginning with Dissolution. Who can resist such a great title? The word alone conjures such rich imagery. You know there’s going to be murder, darkness, fire and, of course, monks and you can almost hear the violent clashing of swords.

I also went through a heady phase at university when I was enamoured of everything Italian, especially Venice. Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb and Michael Dibdin are all old favourites.

Reading my list of favourite books, it looks as though I have a thing for titles which feature the word rose. But then in the medieval world, the rose was not just a rose. It was a powerful symbol of Christian imagery especially the Virgin Mary, the universe, purity, loyalty and love.

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