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C.J. Sansom
New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
$14.00, 387 pages, ISBN 0-14-200430-8.

Marialana Wittman
California State University, Long Beach


C.J. Sansom’s first venture into novel writing is sure to please anyone who enjoys historically based mysteries—along the lines of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. As a historian, Sansom has situated this intellectual thriller in the midst of the religious and political struggles of Tudor England. As the story unfolds and the mystery deepens, the tumultuous world of Henry VIII is vividly described through the words of the narrator, Matthew Shardlake, as he quests for answers to the secrets that abound at the monastery of Scarnsea.

In the years between 1536 and 1540, many of the English monasteries were forced into closure as the battle between King Henry VIII’s newly founded church and the Catholic Church divided the nation. In Sansom’s novel the monastery of Scarnsea on the south coast raises the suspicions of Thomas Cromwell, vice regent and vicar general, and a commissioner is sent to investigate. When Robin Singleton is discovered beheaded in the kitchen of the monastery Commissioner Shardlake is called by Lord Cromwell to quickly capture the murderer. In the interest of keeping the event from the king and any political enemies, Cromwell requests that Shardlake look into the matter as discreetly as possible. Thus, Shardlake departs Cromwell’s office with the question of foul play on his mind, and a hint of doubt concerning his lordship’s true motives.

Shardlake sets out the next morning for the Benedictine house with his assistant Mark Poer, a young man whose attractive physique is a stark contrast to Shardlake’s hunchback. As the story continues, the reader discovers the struggles that Shardlake has faced throughout his life and realizes how his physical limitation is also his mental weakness. In fact, it is his disability that shapes a great deal of the protagonist’s existence, his complex about his body affecting as it does his interactions with others, professionally and personally.

Despite his deformity, which is still feared at the time as a sign of bad luck, Shardlake climbs the political ladder to become one of Cromwell’s most trusted commissioners. Carrying papers that granted him supreme authority as one of Cromwell’s men makes it possible for Shardlake to exert the kind of power over the men in the town and at the monastery that his body cannot command. Yet, his bent back still causes many to look down upon him and he must toil to maintain his control over the disorder developing at Scarnsea.

Shardlake’s back also hinders his work as the strain on his body from hours of riding, searching around in the cold marsh and exploring the shadows at the monastery wear him down to the point that he is unable to react quickly in life-threatening moments. At other times he must rely on Poer’s physical strength to collect evidence that he is unable to collect himself, which in some cases delays his progress in solving the mysteries. Often it causes a mental distraction from the task before him.

While his hunchback makes him sympathetic to some, it creates conflict with others. The pressure of time and the mounting danger bring tensions between Shardlake and Poer to a head. The relationship between Shardlake and Poer is an interesting storyline that is fleshed out as the mystery continues. Shardlake is part father figure, benefactor, and mentor, yet this turns out to be a bit one-sided in the end. Differing political and religious views lead to several disagreements between the two. However, the real discord stems from Shardlake’s insecurity. Having promised his father to help Poer advance in the world, Shardlake feels jealous of Poer’s unblemished body and this resentment comes to the surface when Shardlake finds that Alice, the infirmarian’s assistant, does not shrink away from Poer’s touch as she had with his. Their desire for the same woman reveals some cultural history; such as just how socially acceptable Shardlake’s hunchback was and class hierarchy in relation to passions and religion.

Sansom paints a vivid picture of other historical aspects of Tudor England as Shardlake follows the few clues he has to uncover the culprit. Unraveling the monks’ secrets exposes a multitude of sins these “holy” men commit. Shardlake’s detective work brings to light the fact that many monks broke their vows of chastity with either members of the same sex or the opposite sex. In this story, young novices and servant women were the victims of such corruption. The monks of Scarnsea also succumb to the materialism and greed that was a common critique of the Catholic Church; one that stirred the Reformation and the Counter Reformation. Sansom also uses Mark Poer and Alice to vocalize possible opinions common people could have had regarding the power struggle between church and state. Realities of daily life are also explored. Some examples are medical practices, accounting, and the monastery’s role in the lives of the poor.

The place of women in a monastery is one other facet of the epoch that is introduced in the novel. The contradictory views of woman as temptress and victim come across when Shardlake questions a few of the brothers on their actions toward two young women who worked in the infirmary. Shardlake’s attitude toward women seems to be more in tune with our times than his own. However, varying thoughts on women are touched upon in the novel. Particularly interesting is Prior Mortimus’s comment, “Women—they’re different, they deserve a peaceful life if they behave. Orphan was a good girl, not like that malapert Guy has working for him now” [278]. Good girl or not, both women were victims of Prior’s sexual advances.

While such historical topics are not the focus of the novel, they do bring up interesting points and could be useful in introducing important historical questions in a classroom setting. There are even study questions available on the Internet for this purpose. For educational or recreational enjoyment, Sansom’s history mystery is hard to put down once started.

In the novel, days pass and Shardlake continues to suspect one of the head brothers regardless of their assertion that it was thieves from the village. Each step forward leads Shardlake to another piece of evidence that raises new suspicions while leaving the others still unsolved. From their first steps inside Scarnsea, Shardlake and Poer realize the case would not easily be solved but now they fear their lives are in danger. Shardlake clutches to the hope that one piece of evidence will crack the case and he leaves Poer in command as he leaves Scarnsea in search of an answer. What he discovers will surprise the reader, in a twist that is most unexpected.


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