FICTION A death in the family
NICK RENNISON salutes a crime novel that’s rich in atmosphere, intrigue and historical detail Tombland by CJ Sansom Mantle, 880 pages, £20
One of the most complex, intriguing characters in historical crime fiction over the last 15 years has been the hunchbacked Tudor lawyer, Matthew Shardlake. This is the seventh novel to chronicle his adventures in the dangerous, murky world of 16th-century English politics.
Two years have passed since the death of Henry VIII. His son, Edward VI, is still a boy and the kingdom is ruled by the lord protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset. Shardlake is in the employ of Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the late king. When one of Elizabeth’s distant relations is found murdered in an East Anglian ditch, he is despatched to investigate. The victim had vanished from her home nine years earlier, only to reappear as a corpse. Her husband, John Boleyn, who has remarried and has a motive for murder, has been arrested. Shardlake, though, comes to believe the man is innocent and sets about investigating other suspects – from the psychopathic teenage twins Boleyn has fathered to his rival landowners.
However, this one family’s tragedy is rapidly overtaken by wider events. Tensions are growing between rich and poor as the enclosure of common land drives people into destitution. Under the leadership of the charismatic Robert Kett, the Norfolk peasants prepare to rise in rebellion. Caught up in the turmoil, Shardlake struggles to reconcile his beliefs with what he witnesses in the rebel camp, while still seeking to uncover what happened to John Boleyn’s wife.
Reading Sansom’s fiction is an immersive experience. He summons up Tudor society in such detail and with such colour that you are plunged into the heart of it. Across 800-plus pages, the narrative pace very occasionally flags but Tombland works brilliantly as both a murder mystery and a reconstruction of Kett’s rebellion – a largely forgotten episode in Tudor history.
Robert Kett, as depicted in a c1746 oil painting. Kett’s rebellion provides the historical background for the latest novel in CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series