In “Heartstone,” C. J. Sansom embroils his hero, lawyer and do-gooder Matthew Shardlake, in several intrigues that take him away from London for a large part of the novel. It is 1545, and the profligate King Henry VIII is squeezing his subjects dry in order to wage an expensive military campaign against France. The king has ordered English currency devalued, levied heavy taxes, conscripted every able-bodied Englishman, and even hired foreign mercenaries to wage war against the enemy.
Matthew, who is forty-three and hunchbacked, has never married but is a respected member of Lincoln’s Inn. He frequently puts aside his professional interests to get involved in other people’s business. For instance, he often visits Ellen Fettiplace, a woman who has been in Bedlam for nineteen years and has grown attached to Shardlake. Although he has no romantic feelings for Ellen, he is determined to find out who placed her in the asylum and why. In another matter, Queen Catherine Parr asks Matthew to look into the case of Hugh Curtey, a ward of Sir Nicholas Hobbey. There is some suspicion that Hugh has been exploited and Catherine wants Matthew to investigate the allegation.
Along with his intrepid assistant, Jack Barak, Matthew takes to the road, and a long road it is. Not only will he end up in Portsmouth, where Henry’s huge militia is preparing to defend the English coast from invasion, but he will also tangle with ruthless and greedy men who are willing to kill in order to keep their secrets hidden. Barak would rather stay in London with his pregnant wife, Tamasin; however, in order to avoid military service, he accompanies Shardlake. Matthew is intelligent, compassionate, prone to melancholy, stubborn, and a bit obsessive. Even when threatened with bodily harm, he refuses to abandon his inquiries.
“Heartstone” is fluid, informative, entertaining, and a marvel of research. The author’s period detail and descriptive writing are impressive. Sansom includes maps and background information that add realism to this intricate tale. We inhabit sixteenth century England and experience what life was like for royalty, gentlemen, farmers, merchants, and particularly soldiers (they sometimes ate rotten food, lived in flea-infested quarters, and took orders from arrogant and abusive commanders). Their reward? To get “ripped apart and slaughtered in battle.” We get glimpses of the powerful weaponry on a gigantic warship. In addition, the author points how widespread corruption and favoritism were at every level of government, and how bitter the enmity was between the affluent and those who lived from hand to mouth.
Each character is scrupulously depicted. Ellen at times appears to be irrational, but she has moments of great calm and lucidity. What terrible memories make her terrified of leaving the institution? Nicholas Hobbey and his wife, Abigail, are obviously keeping something from Matthew, but can he learn what it is in time to help Hugh? Among the villains is a familiar face, Sir Richard Rich, who is back to give Matthew even more grief. Historical novels are hard to write. One can write history and one can write a good novel; but to do both – write good history into a good novel with believable characters requires an artistic chemistry which few authors possess. Sansom does; and it shows.
Some may balk at the book’s length (over six hundred pages), but those who love high-quality British historical fiction will welcome this new installment in an excellent series.