Revelation [London: Macmillan, 2008] is a revelation: Sansom’s fourth novel in his Shardlake series of Tudor detective thrillers was my eye-opener to the series in which Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer in mid-16th century London, battles through blood, poisoning, stabbing, flame and explosion to solve the mystery of who is the perpetrator of a series of horrendous murders. Crime novel readers could hardly ask for more. The pressure and tension are never lifted and seem to grow with each succeeding chapter.
This was my first Sansom novel which I was prompted to read since I had become tired of waiting for more from Hilary Mantel! Not that the two writers, in terms of style, approach and intent, have anything more in common than a focus on that period in Tudor life when Henry VIII decided to go to any necessary lengths to secure his divorce from his first wife, seize the assets of the Church in England and then work his way through the list – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded – until he seeks his sixth wife who managed to survive him. This the moment in time when Revelation is set.
Shardlake narrates and sets the scene. It is Tudor London in 1543 and, thanks to services rendered in the past, as set out in the earlier novels of the series, he is an advocate at the Court of Requests which handles cases of litigants who do not have the resources to plead. However:
It was true that London was full of both beggars and fanatics now, an unhappy city. And a purge would make things worse, there was, too, something I had not told the company; the parents of the boy in Bedlam were members of a radical Protestant congregation, and their son’s mental problems were religious in nature. I wished I had not taken the case, but I was obliged to deal with the Request cases that were allocated to me. And his parents wanted their son released.
Sansom has the knowledge and the gift to describe graphically the sights, sounds and smells of the city which is the location for his story. Very soon, his close friend and fellow lawyer, Roger Elliard, is brutally murdered and his body placed in a fountain in Lincoln’s Inn. Shardlake vows to Roger’s widow that he will find her husband’s killer. He is summoned to a meeting with Archbishop Cranmer where he learns that there has already been a similar brutal killing, possibly even two killings. With the King’s Assistant Coroner, he is charged by Cranmer to solve the cases and find the killer. For political reasons, however, it must be a secret inquiry.
The intense and internecine battle between those whose preference would be to drift back to the ‘old’ religion, Catholicism, and those who want to achieve a completely Protestant church and nation colours the whole narrative. Fear of the consequences of being on the ‘wrong’ side in these intolerant times permeates the minds of everyone involved. After all, these consequences could include being burned alive.
Shardlake’s investigations uncover the possible motivation for the serial killer’s actions and a hint of his future targets. You will need to read Revelation to find all revealed in a way that grips the reader to the very last chapter. As my blogs eschew plot spoilers, that is all I can say here but I have bought the first in the series Dissolution to see how it all began. Readers new to Sansom can, of course, read any one of the six Shardlake books in any order but will probably gain from starting at the beginning.