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Publisher: Macmillan UK
Release Date: June 2003
ISBN: 1405005424 
Format Reviewed: Hardback
Buy it at Amazon US || UK
Genre: Historical Crime [1537, London & Sussex, England]
Reviewed: 2004
Reviewer: Rachel A Hyde 

Matthew Shardlake Tudor Mystery, No 1
By C J Sansom

     Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries saw the greatest religious revolution ever to happen in Britain since the introduction of Christianity. It is a time when people inform on each other, nobody can be trusted and when faith itself is in question. Thomas Cromwell's commissioners sweep across the land investigating the monasteries for a hint of corruption, and one of them is found decapitated at the monastery of St Donatus at Scarnsea on the Sussex coast. Cromwell sends melancholy hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake to find out whodunit, but as events become more and more tangled and the body count rises, Shardlake finds that this is not the only thing he has to discover.

     In a way this book is the antithesis of Ellis Peters and her many imitators whose mysteries are somehow cozy and a comfortable read. No warm bath, more a chilly dip in the Sussex marshes but a more cerebral experience all around. Here is the same framework as the "cozies", but Shardlake finds out not just the perpetrator of the crime but many truths about himself and those he admires. Sansom is adept at drawing his readers into the story as Shardlake himself is the narrator (always a good ploy to grab attention and keep it) and his descriptions of the catastrophic monastery in the depths of winter are wonderfully tangible. He has wisely kept to a small cast of memorable characters whose tale is played out in an equally claustrophobic milieu, serving as a microcosm of what is happening in the rest of the country. There are parallels too with our own times, as corrupt statesmen hatch plots and the result is a compelling picture of a disastrous period of history that will have far-reaching consequences even into our own times. I did feel that at times the pace was a little slow and the action repetitive; it could have stood some editing which would have made it tauter and more effective. But overall I do feel that this is one of the standout historical crime novels of the year. I look forward to part two.

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