Book: Heartstone (C.J. Sansom)

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Heartstone: A Matthew Shardlake Mystery

Author: C.J. Sansom
Publisher: Macmillan

Summer, 1545. England is at war. Henry VIII’s invasion of France has gone badly wrong, and a massive French fleet is preparing to sail across the Channel. As the English fleet gathers at Portsmouth, the country raises the largest militia army it has ever seen. The King has debased the currency to pay for the war, and England is in the grip of soaring inflation and economic crisis.

Meanwhile Matthew Shardlake is given an intriguing legal case by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr. Asked to investigate claims of “monstrous wrongs” committed against a young ward of the court, which have already involved one mysterious death, Shardlake and his assistant Barak journey to Portsmouth.

Once arrived, Shardlake and Barak find themselves in a city preparing to become a war zone; and Shardlake takes the opportunity to also investigate the mysterious past of Ellen Fettipace, a young woman incarcerated in the Bedlam. The emerging mysteries around the young ward, and the events that destroyed Ellen’s family 19 years before, involve Shardlake in reunions both with an old friend and an old enemy close to the throne. Events will converge on board one of the King’s great warships, primed for battle in Portsmouth harbour….


Many writers jostle for position at the top of the historical crime fiction tree, but for many aficionados one novelist has maintained an assured premium position for quite some time: the British writer CJ Sansom. His sprawling, exuberant and brilliantly organised novels featuring the wily hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake are particular favourites of those who seek something a little more ambitious in the field, and it’s not hard to see why. Most of Sansom’s novels (which include Dissolution, Sovereign, Dark Fire and Revelation) seem positively operatic in their sheer scale, and the vividness of which Tudor England is covered by the author makes most other writing in the genre seem footling.

At over 600 pages, the new book, Heartstone, is one of his most imposing, but after a challenging, slowish start (something frequently attempted by Sansom—like many good writers, he often demands a certain patience from his readers), the customary comprehensive grip is rigorously maintained. The invasion of France mounted by Henry VIII has been a disaster, and, in retaliation, an imposing French fleet is making preparations to cross the Channel. At Portsmouth, the English navy is readying itself for the battle of its life, and at Henry’s autocratic direction, a massive militia army is being raised. England, reeling under the debasing of its currency to pay for the war, is suffering crippling inflation and economic meltdown. (If the thought of Britain’s involvement in controversial foreign wars while suffering an economic crisis might remind the reader of a few contemporary parallels, there is little doubt that is exactly what CJ Sansom intends.) Against this tumultuous backdrop, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake is presented with a difficult case via an elderly servant of Queen Catherine Parr which will plunge him into the labyrinthine toils of the King’s Court of Wards. Shardlake’s job is to look into wrongs which have been done to the young ward Hugh Curteys by a Hampshire landowner, and (as is customary with most cases involving Shardlake) violent death is soon on the agenda, as the threat of war lours.

Readers of CJ Sansom will know exactly what to expect here, and all the usual pleasures afforded by this massively talented writer are satisfyingly on offer. If Heartstone is not quite vintage Sansom, that is perhaps because the author has set (and maintained) such a high standard. But what the novel provides in terms of reach and achievement is streets ahead of most of his contemporaries. —Barry Forshaw

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