C.J. Sansom,
Dark Fire
(Viking, 2005)

C.J. Sansom gives us our money's worth with two intriguing storylines set in the fascinating historical period of 16th-century London. A 12-year-old boy has apparently been murdered by an older girl, a cousin who had been taken in by the boy's family after her parents were killed. When pressed by a desperate friend, hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake reluctantly undertakes her defense. He finds his only chance for a fair trial is help from Thomas Cromwell, Vicar General and Lord Great Chamberlain to King Henry VIII. That help, however, comes with a perilous condition: Cromwell wants Shardlake to find the "dark fire" of the title, a spectacular ancient weapon that Cromwell believes has been rediscovered. He is convinced he can use it to heal his increasingly shaky relationship with the king.

Cromwell had become a favorite after he convinced Henry to establish himself as the head of the Church of England in a break with Rome. But his downfall began when he further advised the king to marry Anne of Cleves to bring the Northern German princes to his side in his struggle with the pope. The king, notoriously demanding of his women, quickly came to hate Anne, from all reports an unattractive and quarrelsome wife.

This is the second historical mystery by Sansom to feature Shardlake. In both, he is commissioned by Thomas Cromwell (Oliver Cromwell was descended from one of his sisters) to undertake a delicate and dangerous investigation. This time, Shardlake is particularly reluctant because he knows of Cromwell's troubles with Henry. Providing a service to one out of favor with the king can be fatal. But he feels he has no choice; the still powerful Cromwell is insistent, and has offered help with Shardlake's difficult defense of the girl whom all of London believes killed her younger cousin.

It's a complex and entertaining plot, and the accurately described political maneuvering of Henry's court is a fascinating backdrop. The bubbling London setting is equally entertaining. London, at the time, was far from the civilized environment some of us may picture. Cruelty, social injustice and crime were common, all aggravated by an intense class consciousness rivaling the caste system of India.

In the midst of this, Shardlake, a peaceable man with a straightforward view of right and wrong, quickly becomes a character we wish well. His troubles compound as the girl he defends at the plea of a friend refuses to speak, the trail of dark fire turns murderous and powerful enemies of Cromwell threaten to intervene.

Shardlake is assisted in his investigations by an adventurous younger man, Barak, assigned him by the Lord Great Chamberlain. This character and others, including a bit of a love interest, are well drawn and satisfyingly human.

Sansom's writing style, at this early point in his career, is no more than serviceable, but it's a great plot, with attractive characters and an interesting setting. Fans of historical mysteries need to add Sansom to their list. I'll be going back to try Dissolution, the earlier book in the series, and keeping an eye out for future installments.

by Ron Bierman
15 July 2006

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