“SHARDLAKE GOES TO WAR” declares the cover of Heartstone, the new C.J. Sansom novel. Thankfully, he doesn’t. I suspect C.J. Sansom’s talent s would have been wasted if he had attached his Tudor hero to a regiment and sent him yomping off into battle – the results would have been interesting, but rather too sub-Bernard Cornwell. (Though no doubt Sansom will prove me wrong before long!) Instead,the hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake roved over the countryside from London to Portsmouth, trying to keep his servant Barak from being conscripted, poke around into a dubious wardship for the Queen and investigate the crime which consigned an old friend to Bedlam.
As that summary suggests, there’s plenty going on in Heartstone. As with many genre authors, Sansom’s books are growing as he becomes more successful. Luckily for us, they feel as if they’re getting broader rather than simply longer. Sansom’s novels aren’t radical historical crime like, for example, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Lawrence Norfolk’s Lempriere’s Dictionary or Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost. They’re not going to transform the genre either in the ideas it can contain or what kind of writing it can encompass. But they do broaden the territory it wanders through. Where another novelist might have kept the dreaded Bedlam off-stage, or built a whole gothic novel around its forbidding walls, Sansom takes us inside it to show us the petty internal politics as well as the unhappiness and injustice. Cornwell’s archers in Agincourt have some sort of “backstory” to explain their presence in the army, but Sansom shows us the muster at which they are selected, and how ineffective it is to simply pass a law saying that all Englishmen must practice the longbow.
If that makes the Shardlake novels sound duller than their predecessors, then I’ve not done them justice. The Tudor world feels spacious in Sansom’s writings, the reader feels less corralled onto a path marked “quest” than in some of his peers. The shape of the narrative is recognisable – even comfortingly so – as that of a historical crime novel, but the setting has ceased to be just a background. It’s an illusion, of course, but a very well-executed one. The same effect is noticeable in Rome when one moves from reading Robert Graves’ Claudius novels to Lindsay Davis’ Falco series, or in Greece when Mary Renault’s Mask of Apollo is followed by Tom Holt’s The Walled Orchard. The mythical or allegorical feel is diminished, but the novel becomes involving in a different and more realist way.
That we feel more at home in the world of Shardlake than that of, say, Brother Cadfael, also has something to do with the way Sansom inflects the genre. If the broad tendency of historical fiction since I, Claudius, or even Ivanhoe, has been to move down the social scale from kings and aristocracy, to let the middle classes in on the historical game, then the Shardlake novels offer another extension of this arc. Matthew Shardlake the lawyer and his friend Dr. Guy Malton represent the arrival of the professional classes. Landless but educated, open-minded, progressive and paid by the case, they bear a striking resemblance to the heroes of many modern thrillers. Particularly as Shardlake’s legal cases are dragged so frequently into political intrigue: if his previous investigation in Revelation brought the serial-killer novel to mind, there is more than a whiff of The Pelican Brief and the legal thriller genre about his activities now. The parallels aren’t hard to find: there’s a crime which leads to be people being “silenced” for fear of incriminating their superiors, a lawyer intimidated by threats from powerful politicians and a denouement in which it turns out that the murder was tied up with a secret political document which had to be protected at all costs.
This is not a criticism in and of itself – after all, historical crime novels are notable for their tendency to adapt previous genres instead of generating radically new forms. Ellis Peters’ work often bears a very strong resemblance to a country-house whodunit which happened to take place in a medieval monastery, and what was Lindsay Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco if not a classic gumshoe PI transported to Imperial Rome? However, it does highlight what could be seen as a limitation on Sansom’s series as a whole, even if it doesn’t necessarily make itself felt very strongly in single novels. In using basically modern genres to expand the territory of historical crime, Sansom (like many other novelists) produces characters who are relentlessly “on the side of history”. Shardlake empathizes with characters of Jewish and Spanish heritage because of the jibes he has endured as a hunchback, whilst Guy washes his hands after dealing with a patient, remarking that unlike some of his colleagues he believes it can help prevent disease. Difficult things to object to, but this attitude tends to streamline the grubby and ramshackle past into a vessel for getting to the modern world. It also, rather curiously tends to conflate morality with “modern” attitudes and ideas. After all, why should Guy, in order to be a good character, have to be correct about medical hygiene?
That said, Heartstone is a superbly involving novel, and a cracking addition to the Shardlake series. Whenever Sansom sends his protagonist off on a case, we get to visit parts of the Tudor world we’ve never been. Let’s have plenty more of these.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, January 2011.