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

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Fiction - Nick Rennison is the au­thor of Carver’s Truth (Corvus, 2016)

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

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