Over the past week, I read all five of C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series. I cannot recommend them highly enough to fans of historical mysteries. Set in the England of King Henry VIII, they are told from the wry yet sensitive point of view of Matthew Shardlake, a barrister of Lincoln's Inn who attempts to see justice done in the corrupt courts of law and the even more corrupt courts of royalty. The author is a retired solicitor with a PhD in history, and it shows--he has clearly done impeccable research and one need not have a background in the Reformation to understand what is going on, so seamlessly is that information integrated into the text, and Sansom ends each book with a historical note and recommendations for further reading. Yet these are by no means dry tomes. Even minor players are well characterised, the pacing is fast, and the plots twist and turn.

Shardlake himself is a fascinating character: a hunchback in a time when superstition about his condition abounds, he has every reason to be bitter and to lash out at a world that often goes out of the way to be cruel to him, but he is not and does not. Indeed, he is a compassionate and honourable man of deep integrity seeking to do justice to the best of his considerable ability and is refreshing for it. Protagonists in most mystery series are dashing, womanising, too cool for school and prefer to solve problems with brawn. Shardlake's physical condition and general personality preclude this sort of James Bond nonsense; he is instead a brilliant legal mind who is socially awkward in his dealings outside the courtroom, is perpetually unlucky in love due in no small part to his fear of rejection, and who prevails by using his brain, sense of ethics, stubbornness, and courage (in the sense of carrying on despite long odds, great danger, and his own fear). Nor is he some unrealistically pure and virtuous paragon; he does his best, but at times is grumpy and short with people he cares about, leaps to erroneous conclusions, gets himself in over his head, and generally has believable flaws and foibles.

Further, Shardlake's worldview evolves and matures throughout the series as he reevaluates what he stands for and learns from his mistakes. When we first meet him in Dissolution, he is a keen reformer in the service of Thomas Cromwell, investigating a murder at a monastery in the process of being dissolved as Catholicism was gradually being outlawed. What he experiences over the course of that novel shakes his religious views to the core, leaving this once staunch religious radical no longer sure what he believes. By the third book in the series, he is becoming what would now be termed agnostic, struggling with his growing ambivalence about organised religion and unsure of his belief in God, dangerous beliefs to hold when one could be executed for voicing them. The novels increase in length as the series proceeds, but they rarely drag and I found that a couple of evenings turned into mornings as I could not put them down and go to sleep.

Five Tower Ravens out of five for the series as it stands so far. With the fifth and most recent book ending approximately six months before Henry VIII's death, I imagine it will continue into the reigns of Edward VI and of course Elizabeth I. I certainly hope so.

While I eagerly await the next installation, I've picked up a used copy of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Peter Ackroyd's Life of Thomas More, in keeping with the theme.
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