Mulholland Books, 656 pages, $27
Matthew Shardlake is an unlikely series hero. He is a hunchbacked lawyer from a humble background who has risen to a position of some regard and substance, despite his initial work for the discredited and executed Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII in dissolving the monasteries around England in the wake of Henry’s break with the Catholic Church.
In “Lamentation,” the sixth in the series, Shardlake must provide Queen Catherine Parr with a discreet service. A manuscript, with expressed Reformist sympathies, has been stolen. It was written by the Queen and she had intended to destroy it, in light of the frenzied hunt for heretics going on. Although the manuscript was not per se heretical, it could give ammunition to the Queen’s political enemies. With very few clues to help him, Shardlake is charged with its return.
The make-up of the King’s council reflects the divisiveness of both the King’s religious meddling and vacillation; it is composed of both religious traditionalists and reformers. It is to Sansom’s credit that he has created an intricate plot that brings into doubt the motives of both sides. Could the Queen actually be the victim of her allies? Could there be protectors among her enemies?
“Lamentation” begins with the dramatic burning of indicted heretic Anne Askew in 1546. Shardlake is made to witness this horrific public execution by his Inn of Court. Thus Sansom sets the stage for this fearful and revolutionary time. People of all stations could be charged with heresy. Because of Henry’s shifting beliefs, it is politic, as Shardlake says, “‘to worship as King Henry decrees.’” Shardlake, who has moderate religious beliefs — if, indeed, he is not an atheist at this point — is immersed in two cases for which he must tip-toe through the doctrinal debates.
It is Sansom’s great strength that he can place his story in an England of the past that lives and breathes by his penstroke. No more can be asked of an historical mystery than that it be both an excellent literary picture and a suspenseful tale.
Here’s an MBTB star for “Lamentation.”