Heartstone, the fifth novel in C. J. Sansom’s historical thriller series set in Tudor England featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake, is a rousing good read for most of its 600-plus pages. It goes a little over the top towards the end for my taste, but even here, if you can accept the premises, the story pulls you along with some real urgency. In part this is because, in spite of any misgivings you may have about the events described, Sansom has created a gallery of richly portrayed characters who, heroes and villains both, demand your attention.
Starting with Shardlake, himself — a hunchback subject to the prejudices common to the period, defender of the interests of the poor and less fortunate with a ferret-like persistence, out of favor with King Henry but protected by Catherine Paar, the last of his queens — Sansom manages to create a compelling cast of complex personalities with real human concerns and motivations.
There’s Barak, Shardlake’s assistant, worried about a wife nearing term with child and the possibility of being conscripted into the army but forced to accompany the lawyer away from London on his latest case. There’s Dyrick, the opposition lawyer, something of a scheming shyster, but with a real attachment to his family. Dyrick’s assistant is a religious zealot who doesn’t seem to recognize his master’s chicanery.
There is a young ward who seems to have been mistreated by his guardians, but who refuses to acknowledge any wrong. Young men enamored with the glamour of war, battle-tested veterans disillusioned with its horror, dishonest magistrates, ineffectual well meaning clergymen, guilt ridden sinners and amoral power brokers: these are just a sample of the characters that people his pages.
Set in 1545, England is still at war with France after its disastrous attack on the French mainland the year before and is now facing an invasion by a much superior French fleet. An army is being mobilized to meet the threat, and not all conscripts are eager for battle. The King needs funds, so taxes have been levied on those with property and the currency has been debased. Supplies for the army and navy are inadequate. Corruption is rampant.
Against this background, the Queen asks Shardlake to look into a case for one of her old servants. The woman’s son had been tutor to a brother and sister who had lost their parents and become wards to a merchant family that had purchased lands near property owned by their family. Sometime later, after the sister had died of the plague, and the family had moved to the country, the tutor accused the family of having done something terrible to the boy, and filed a complaint in the Court of Wards. Then mysteriously he commits suicide. Shardlake is asked to see what he can do for the ward.
This is complicated by the case of a woman who has been remanded to Bedlam after her mind had been affected by a vicious rape some years earlier. Shardlake has been visiting her regularly at the asylum and he is determined to find out how she got there and what happened, partly because she seems to have formed a romantic attachment to him, and partly because of his customary feeling for the downtrodden. When it turns out that the woman came from a part of the country not far from where the family of the ward is living, both of which are quite near Portsmouth, where the French invasion is expected, all of the major plot elements come together as Shardlake and Barak set out to investigate. Surprises await, both for them and for the reader.
What with the popularity of The Tudors television series, popular historical novels like The Other Boleyn Girl, and the Booker Prize for Hilary Mantel’s novel, Wolf Hall, the period of Henry VIII is clearly of the moment. And while the King himself only appears once in the book as he passes by Shardlake as his retinue enters Portsmouth, his effect on the era is palpable. His seizure of church land and property, his antagonisms with the rest of Europe, his constant need for money and his reliance on cat’s paws and villains are all important elements in the working out of the plots and the behavior of the characters. As far-fetched as some of the motivations and events sometimes seem, in the world of the Tudors, where heads were wont to roll as often as bowling balls, they seem almost probable. Indeed, for many readers they may not seem far-fetched at all.