Sansom: Dark Fire

May 12, 2009

Dark Fire
C.J. Sansom (Viking, 2004)
500 p.  First reading.

Matthew Shardlake, the hunch-backed lawyer of Tudor England, is back in this enjoyable historical crime novel.  A few years ago I read the first Shardlake book, Dissolution, and liked it well enough to add this second book to my reading list.  In the meantime C.J. Sansom has brought the series up to four volumes, so I thought it high time that I gave Dark Fire my attention.

Henry VIII is unhappy in love, and Cromwell, who arranged his disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, finds himself in peril of the king’s wrath. Worse, Henry’s affections have turned to Catherine Howard, the niece of Cromwell’s political foe Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, the success of which marriage would be Cromwell’s undoing.  Desperate for the king’s good favour, Sansom’s Cromwell grasps at an intriguing straw: a rumour that a pair of local alchemists have acquired the secret Byzantine formula for Greek Fire, reasoning that if he could provide the king with such a potent new weapon it would surely save his neck.  As he has done before, Cromwell calls on Shardlake for assistance.

Meanwhile, Shardlake is investigating the alleged murder of a young boy.  The accused’s uncle is a friend of Shardlake’s, and has begged Shardlake to defend her.  Shardlake suspects her innocence, but she is shortly condemned to death by peine forte et dure.  Cromwell, hearing of the sentence, offers a temporary reprieve in exchange for Shardlake’s help.  Despite his misgivings about working again for Cromwell, the offer is too good to pass up.  He has two weeks to find Greek Fire and find the true murderer.

This deftness with which Sansom ties two rather disparate story-lines together gives some idea of how carefully the plot is put together.  Every mystery novelist faces the challenge of presenting enough clues to solve the mystery without prematurely giving the solution away.  Sansom has cleverly seeded this story with seemingly incidental details that subsequently acquire importance, and avoids the trap of relying on some new revelation dropped in at the last moment.  It’s not perfect — there was at least one turning point in the detective work for which the logic was opaque to me — but for the most part it is well done and grants the reader a fair challenge.

Sansom leans toward the P.D. James school of mystery writing: his stories aspire to be more than simple tales of detection.  He has taken the historical setting of the story seriously, and worked hard to bring Tudor London to life.  I think he succeeds here better than he did in Dissolution — clouds of dust and heaps of rubble fill the streets as monasteries are pulled down, and the sights and smells of the city are vividly presented — but there is still room for improvement.  However good may be the physical details of the historical period, a serious historical novel must try to recreate the psychological atmosphere of the time.  Sansom does make an attempt, having Shardlake ponder Cromwell’s religious reforms and their implications for Christian faith, but his musings are rather resigned and disinterested: too much twenty-first century and not enough sixteenth.

Another problem with the book is its length: this story doesn’t need this much space. It is a little tiring to have Shardlake visiting the same person multiple times because he or she happens to be out on the first attempt.  It would be nice to see the plot structure tightened up a little in future installments.

3 Responses to “Sansom: Dark Fire”

  1. Janet Says:

    This sounds like just what I want for my three week break from classes.

    AMDG, Janet

  2. Janet Says:

    OK, today I went to the library and after much searching came home with a copy of Dark Fire. I began reading while we were waiting for a pizza and found that it was about a murder that was committed on the eve of May 16th! Last week we were watching something on a DVD that was occuring on the date that we were watching it, too. How strange.

    AMDG, Janet

  3. cburrell Says:

    That is indeed a strange coincidence. I didn’t remember the date in the book. I hope you enjoy the book, Janet. Congratulations on finishing your courses.

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